Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Role of Religion in Modern Era, and Sikhism

This was delivered at the 27th Bir Memorial Lecture, on 23rd October 2011 at India International Centre, New Delhi

I indeed feel greatly privileged and honored to deliver the 27th Bir Memorial Lecture on the topic, ‘The Role of Religion in Modern Era, and Sikhism.’

As some one who has nourished a firm faith in the ancient axiom, since I learnt it at school, ‘Faith moves mountains’, I feel more deeply convinced today, in the proverbial ‘ripe age’, that the collective destiny of humanity on our tiny planet – only one known so far to be sustaining human life – would for ever be determined by the eternal spiritual values taught by all the prophets of all the peoples in all the lands.

I am, however, acutely conscious of my individual inadequacies in dealing with the discipline of Divinity; debatable theological, philosophical, socio-anthropological and above all the explosive political dimensions of the seminal subject. I would, therefore, approach the issues involved more as a seeker-Jigyasu-and a way farer – a Musafir – whom the Almighty has bountifully blessed with duties of long travels and living sufficiently longer among peoples of distant lands, professing different faiths.

While engrossed in my thoughts about ‘religion’, I felt that one’s family exercises the most impressionable influence in inculcating the primary religious colors and elementary moral values. I belong to an era when the grandparents used to be loving friends, philosophers and guides to grand children for their basic moral training. I do recollect how my grand father had fondly made me learn by heart the Hanuman Chalisa before I was even admitted to school. The grandmother had ensured that I was able to recite the Rahiraas in the evening soon after I was able to learn the Gurumukhi script at school. I further vividly recall how my grandmother, who would remain busy reciting the Bhagat Maal and the Bhagawad Gita, did not allow me to go to cinema to see film Bhagat Kabir saying, “no, no, they must have distorted the life-story of Kabir mixing vulgar songs and dances!” I can also recall an atmosphere of fear and anxiety in Punjab, for any transgression of the Panthic values, when the first film with the background of Sikhism ‘Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai’ had been released.

The socio-religious scene in India since Independence has been subjected to an interesting spectrum of cultural influences. The exponential increase in 24x7 TV channels in the recent decades would seem to have redefined the atmosphere in families. The satellite channels have dwarfed the planet to be ‘a global village’ in the truest sense of the term. I do remember the day when the mercurially brilliant Z.A. Bhutto had termed the inauguration of the TV station in Amritsar as ‘cultural aggression’ on Pakistan by India! The socio-political analysts in India point out that the TV serials about the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata had deeply impacted the cultural horizons in South Asia. The daily increasing channels serving a big variety of stuff rooted in alien values of morality and saints and Sadhvis groomed to look better than models would seem to be scripting the new era codes of moral etiquettes.

The term ‘modern era’ would seem to denote interesting interpretations. The eminent sociologist, Prof. T.N. Madan, explains that modernity embraces larger and deeper perspectives of human freedom and choices in religious options. The modernists in India, according to Madan, entertain anxieties about future of secularism in India and in South Asia. I vividly recall how about fifty years ago, as a fresh student of BA, on the suggestion of my Professor of Sociology, I had studied the book, ‘Hints for Self Culture’ by Lala Har Dial (1884-1939), the celebrated encyclopedic-scholar and Ghadarite revolutionary. The chapter titled ‘Comparative Religion’ in the book had made such an abiding impression on my mind that I seem to carry it till today. Please permit me to quote from this book, dedicated ‘To a Young Fellow-Rationalist’, date-lined April 6934 AH (Anno Historiae), equivalent to 1934 A.D.,

Study the great religions carefully … their origin, history and present position. For social progress, they have been what the mighty rivers have been for the material prosperity of mankind. They have supplied the life-giving waters of Ethics, which are, however, very dirty and turgid on account of the large admixture of superstition…Comparative religion is a fascinating study; it will introduce you into the presence of noble sages and saints, who will teach you the social virtues of self denial, temperance, patience, simplicity and love…borrow their virtues, and reject their errors,…rub and rinse and wash and cleanse the old religions; but don’t rub and wash away the Ethics altogether.

As for the most mystifying concept of ‘God’, the Special Millennium issue, interestingly date-lined January 1st 1000-December 31st 1999, of prestigious London weekly The Economist, had put ‘GOD’ in its celebrated column ‘Obituary’, and had observed, “When your friends start looking for proofs of your existence, you’re heading for trouble. That was God’s situation as the millennium got into its stride… Few ordinary folk, though they had different names for him, doubted the reality of God. He was up there somewhere (up, not down; in his long career, no one ever located him on the seabed), always had been always would be. Yet not quite so far up, in the churches and monasteries of Europe, many of its cleverest men would be racking their brains for ways of proving it… They (God’s troubles) were largely his own fault. Like many great personalities, he had countless admirers who hated each other - and he let them do so… For one of infinite knowledge, he was strangely careless how he spread what bits of it to whom… Each set of believers had its version of what he was like and what he said. No wonder cynics began to hint that, if believers differed so widely, belief might be a mistake …Christians nationalized God, as Jews had long since, like some coal mine… The Christians turned not cheeks but swords against Muslims, Jews and each other. Muslims, while averring that “in religion there is no compulsion”, did the like to them and to Hindus, and put to death apostates from Islam… The test will come on Judgment Day, when man, we are told, will meet his maker. Or will it be God meeting his?”

The world has indeed witnessed the weirdest developments in the first decade of the new millennium. The century of dominance by the USA would seem to be fading, mired in many an insoluble problems. President Barrack Obama, the precocious son of an African evokes an image of a brave boy on the burning deck in the poem Casabianca, struggling to put out so many fires. Is this the intensity of darkness before the break of a new dawn for humanity? Will the ancient civilizations of Asia reclaim their roles not only in the global economic arena but also in building a more moral and humane new world order? Are the fault lines of the religions of children of Abraham likely to get repaired by their interaction with the oriental creeds characterized by the credo of pluralism and a continuous process of renewal? The leaders of all religions have to guide their flocks into the modern era of multiculturalism with attendant realities of an intimately interconnected planet. The minds of seven billion inhabitants of the planet would need to be fine tuned to the transformed world of instantaneous communications and global culture. The saint-astronomer of the modern era, Carl Sagan (1934-2006) indeed speaks the most telling poetic-scientific truth about humanity, rather the entire phenomenon of life on earth, “Every breath you take includes a billion oxygen molecules that have been at one time or the other in the lungs of the 50 billion humans who have ever lived.”

The pilgrimage of independent India after a much deliberated and conscious choice on path of religious freedom and secularism certainly makes an illuminating chapter in the history of modern world. The learned scholars have traced ‘Bharat’s Dharma Nirpekshta’ to an eternal ethos of the Hindu way of life, a legacy of an Asoka, an Akbar, and a Ranjit Singh. It was also hailed as the epitome of the national freedom struggle with MK Gandhi, RN Tagore, Maulana AK Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru and their many visionary comrades, not to forget the most self sacrificing soldiers of Neta Ji’s Azad Hind Fauj exemplified by the trial and triumph of Sehgal, Dhillon, Shah Nawaz from the Red Fort. The task of formulating an unprecedented legal frame work of India’s secular polity was diligently and faithfully performed by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who had the first hand experiences of the perversities and persecutions of the religious and caste kind. The deeply brutalizing wounds of Partition would, however, not stop bleeding and injecting cancerous virus of communalism in India’s body politic. India certainly needs eternal vigilance and sincere commitment by the main stream political parties to the genuine values of a secular way of life, fully backed by the spiritual and religious institutions. The multicultural and pluralistic traditions of the nation have to be carefully nourished and perceptions of the minority groups must be addressed effectively and expeditiously. The religious minorities must also come out of their ‘stay apart’ mentality to embrace broader values of our uniquely multicultural country.

Coming to the historical and philosophical evolution of Sikhism in the contemporary contexts, one is indeed overwhelmingly impressed by the unique universality of teachings by great Gurus and inspired Bhagat-saints representing their different faiths and distant regions of India and honorably included in the Sikh faith book compiled in 1604 by Guru Arjan Dev Ji (1563-1606). The book was bestowed the ‘highly exalted status of Sri Guru Granth Sahib’ in 1708 when Guru Gobind Singh Ji (1666-1708) declared the line of human Gurus to be closed; updated Guru Arjan’s Book by adding work of his father, Guru Tegh Bahdur Ji (1622-1675) and nominated the augmented book as his eternal successor. The Granth Sahib, to quote Prof Pritam Singh (Patiala), “is the most lavishly bedecked, the most richly appareled, the most magnificently housed, the most demonstratively venerated and the most ceremoniously apotheosized book of all times and places.” The consecration of Sri Guru Granth Sahib as ‘Eternal-Living Guru’ indeed represents the most momentous development in religious-philosophical, socio-cultural and literary-linguistic domains in the history of India. The realm of spirituality was never the same again after the revolution of Sikhism upholding the values of human fraternity based on fair play, freedom of conscience and fellow feeling among all children of Almighty.

The founder of the faith of Sikhism Sri Guru Nanak dev Ji (1469-1530) has been universally acclaimed as Satiguru, the True Guru, Teacher par excellence. Guru Ji’s prime composition, the Japji - literally sacred recitation, remembrance, of Guru’s divine utterances - has been rightly hailed as the quintessence of philosophy of Sikhism. The Japji is preceded by a short, cryptic, highly revered basic precept popularly known as the Mool (Root) Mantra (Hymn) that succinctly summarizes the three key elements indispensable for the soul in its quest for fulfillment in God. They are: faith in one God as the sole reality; meditation on the Name, the sole Truth; and the Guru whose grace makes it possible for the devotee to realize God. The Japji is such a rare treasure-ocean of thoughtful contemplation that deeper a devotee delves into its nectar, the more he is blessed with the gems of liberating thoughts. The Japji expounds, in the most exquisite poetic language, the fullest concept of God; the human quest for Divine; the Divine Will and Order; the path of loving adoration of God; cultivation of a virtuous way of life; dignity of Human Life and the profoundest cosmological Truths. The human soul is on the wings of ecstasy of liberation when reciting the immortal Bani of the Japji,

Spheres there are beyond our own; /And numberless more beyond these, / What power sustains these spheres aloft? Eternal Thou art, O Lord of the Universe! / Ever True is Thy Name,/ Thou who hast created this Universe,/ Art, has ever been, and shall ever be…Guru’s word to the human soul is as vital/ as air is to man’s very being,/ Water is the source of all life,/ And Mother earth its benign sustainer,…At the True Master’s seat shall our deeds/ be judged aright...

The quad-centenary of the martyrdom in 2006 of the fifth Master, Guru Arjan Dev Ji, was the solemn occasion for the community to introspect deeply on his sterling contribution in consolidating the Sikh religion by compiling the Holy Scripture and strengthening the Sikh traditions and institutions. Guru Arjan Dev Ji, by the unique imprint of his individual character and conduct, has become the personification of an exemplary ideal for moral courage, unflinching faith, complete surrender to the Divine Will, cosmopolitan spirit and love for all humanity. The Sukhmani Sahib-the Panacea for the (aches of) Mind-indeed provides a perfect solace to the soul yearning for the peace of mind. This Psalm of peace and equipoise, according to Prof Puran Singh, ‘flows in an ambrosial stream of hope and light from the bosom of the Guru.’

I recently had the opportunity to once again live through the Bani of the Ninth Master Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji to rediscover how deeply the Guru’s verses epitomize the values of the spiritual heritage of not only of India of his epoch but of the entire humanity. The soul piercing hymns drive home the truths of ultimate destiny of a human being and how one should aspire for an honest life detaching from greed, pride, luxury, sensuality –“the pleasures of Maya-Illusion-are unstable like the wall of sand.” The Guru’s supreme sacrifice of life in the mythological city personifying the heart of Hindustan and his immortal message in a deeply mystic poetry in the popular language of India will continue to inspire eternally all the people confronted with tyranny and injustice.

Inspired by the life transforming teachings of the great Gurus, the followers of Sikhism have made the most conspicuous contribution in all walks of the national life of India and have distinguished themselves in the world reflecting their dynamic and vibrant character steeled by their faith. The community has gone through many tragic experiences too-may be quite disproportionate-and continues to be confronted with many avoidable controversies in the modern era. The Community, according to many well wishers of the Panth, could handle the contemporary socio-cultural and political issues in a more pragmatic and imaginative manner. The various recent significant historical landmarks including the Tercentenary of the Founding of the Khalsa Panth in 1999; the 400th anniversary of compilation of the Granth Sahib in 2004 and the Tercentenary of the Bestowal of the status of the Eternal Guru on the Granth Sahib in 2008 have been the momentous occasions for the Sikh community for the collective soul searching and the resolute rededication to the values and teachings enshrined in the Granth Sahib.

Like all the human societies, the Sikh community has also certain complex issues to address in a sincere and forthright manner. The Sikh community, as ordained so emphatically by the Gurus and considered the single greatest asset of the faith, has not been able to discard the curse of the caste divides in the practical social life. The matrimonial columns of The Tribune on the last 31st July listed under the title Sikh-Bahti, Tonk Kashatry, Ramdasia, Bawa, Lobana, Mazhbi, Rajput, Kumhar, Kamboj, Nai and had separate categories listed Jat Sikh; Sikh Khatri; Sikh Arora; Sikh Khatri / Arora; Ramgarhia / Dhiman, etc.…No wonder that the split wide apart between the pious principles and perverted practices had disillusioned Dr BR Ambedkar to return from Amritsar with a heavy and empty heart. How profoundly the heart of the thinker-Doctor had been touched by the soul stirring Shabads of Amrit Bani sung so melodiously in the serene precincts of Harmandar Sahib eulogizing ‘Manab Ki Jaat Sabhai ek Pehechanbo’- Recognize, understand that the entire race of humanity is one!

The Sikhs, as per the blessings of the Gurus, have prospered more when they are away from their original homes. The soil of Punjab, of course, remains the anchor of their emotional, cultural, spiritual moorings and even some divisive aspirations too. It is important that the various Sikh organizations- with the SGPC / the DSGMC in the forefront (By the grace of Wahiguru, they are known to have abundant resources) put their houses in perfect order. They should play more constructive role in promoting high quality education and health services in healthy competition with other communities and should actively undertake campaigns to check the social evils including the serious problems of drinking, drug addiction,dowry and sex selection. The Panth has played a pioneering role in the past against such malpractices. The Sikhs settled abroad have a much greater responsibility to highlight the positive image of the community. The violent incidents like the one in Vienna tarnish the reputation of the community and must not be allowed to happen. The sensitive issues of activities of the sects and cults should be better allowed to be tackled within the laws of the land. The question, ’Who is a Sikh?’ is extremely sensitive and should not be treated as a game of short tem political gains. The deep historic ties and contemporary realities dictate that the promotion of Hindu-Sikh harmony must remain the primary focus the spiritual leaders of the two communities.

I have been deeply humbled to note that H.H. the Dalai Lama has also delivered the Bir Memorial Lecture. To me, the mirthful monk philosopher has truly transformed himself to be the conscience keeper of our modern epoch. Let us carefully listen to his words of quintessential wisdom,

For true global harmony, it is necessary to understand the diversity of other cultures and traditions through love and respect for every human being, every religion ,every country…it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone-the key is to develop the inner peace…In today’s increasingly complex and interdependent world, we are compelled to acknowledge the existence of other cultures, different ethnic groups, and, of course, other religious faiths..

To conclude, let us all pray with the immortal words of the Tenth master, Guru Gobind Singh Ji exhorting the people of India, nay, this entire world to remember:

Dehura Maseet Soi, pooja au niwaj oee,
Manas sabai ek, Pai anek ko bharmao hai /…
Alah abhekh soi, Puraan aou Quran oee,
Ek hi saroop sabai, ek hi banao hai.

Temple and mosque are same sacred spots;
Worship (of Ishwar) and prayer (to Allah) are indeed one
Humanity is one, impressions may be many…
He is Fathomless and Formless;
Puraan and Quran speak one Truth
Divine Essence is One; permeating the whole cosmos.


Recordings from the Lecture:


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Aarakshan aka Reservation: the Bollywood Aakarshan aka Temptation

The most challenging  and the most passionately debated element in the whole gamut of film making in the dream world of Bollywood - the popularly coined nomenclature for the Mecca of Indian film industry which has now found an exalted entry, as a Noun, in the COED (Concise Oxford English Dictionary) - pertains, believe it or not, to the naamkaran - christening, the name-ceremony. The learned Jyotishacharya-astrologers-numerologists, ad-gurus along with producer, director, script writer, lyricist, musician, etc., - all sit as a team, at times over a pooja path - ritual prayer ceremony - to arrive at an auspicious name which will please the movie goers and click at the box office! The list of names Bollywood films, now aggregating into quite a few hundred thousands, would reveal an amazingly intriguing variety of titles.

Once it is used as the name a ‘Mumbaiah’ film, a word(s) acquires a new avatar - remember Do Bigha Zamin, Haqiqat, Sangam, Aandhi, Anarkali, Sholay… The increasing ‘new-wave’ trend of employing longer Hindi-English mixed words as titles could be interpreted as a tell tale commentary on the fast-changing, youth-driven, linguistic scenarios. The sensitive director in Prakash Jha must have deeply thought over the recently extra value-added single word of Rashtra Bhasha, Aarakshan for its socially divisive and emotive overtones in the contemporary context in Bharat. The public controversy and cash flows at the cinema booking counters are often viewed by shrewd film makers to be directly proportionate - in terms of attracting more viewers who were otherwise indifferent. The much ado about Aarakshan could, within a month of its release, be consigned to this category.

Coming to the name Aarakshan, we may note that the British rule over India, among other things, has richly contributed in the coinage of many an interesting terms and jargon of governance and administrative policies. Some of the colonial nomenclatures - rendered into Rashtra Bhasha Hindi since Independence - have undergone strange metamorphosis, assuming at times completely unforeseen explosive nuances. The word ‘reservation’ was initially used by the British rulers in the context of an administrative measure denoting the number of seats in the jobs of colonial administration exclusively earmarked for native Indians on the basis of their religious denominations.

The ‘real reservation’ story, however, began with the epic struggle waged by Dr BR Ambedkar for the elementary human rights of the large numbers of groups of his people pushed for ever into the bottomless degradation of the Hindu scriptural social order of Varna Ashram Dharma, branding them as Achhut - the Untouchables. The oppression and injustice heaped since time immemorial over the so called low caste people under the scripturally scripted Hindu caste system has no parallel in human history. As the chief architect of the constitution of independent India, Ambedkar was instrumental in the legal abolition of the pugnacious system of Untouchability and introduction of ‘reservation’ of seats for the members of the historically oppressed and discriminated communities in services and legislatures of free India.

The process of emancipation of the untouchables of India had indeed been made possible by the British measures to introduce process of equality before law and the electoral processes of governance. MK Gandhi was the solitary Hindu leader who could fully grasp the bitter truth of the injustice of the caste system reflecting the ugliest underbelly of the Hindu heritage and way of daily life. The hydra-headed monster of caste divides - always lurking in the sidelines of Hindu religiosity - would seem to be staging a surreptitious come back with the decline of idealistic values of freedom struggle and the disarray in the ranks of Congress Party after 1967.

The implementation of the Mandal Commission Report on August 7, 1990 increasing reservations by 27% for the jobs (in addition to the existing 22.5% for Scheduled Castes / Tribes since the adoption of Constitution) by a lame duck Prime Minister VP Singh has indeed rewritten the grammar of electoral politics in India opening a Pandora’s box of gross contradictions and surcharging the social atmosphere as never before. The vote bank politics in different states has played havoc with, the broadly accepted by society, positive discrimination and affirmative action for the historically suppressed ‘untouchables’. The policies of liberal reforms with attendant ‘mantras’ of market economy for the last two decades have brought in their train acute deprivations for a larger social spectrum in India not to speak of only the so called backward classes. The frustration and indignation among the youth, particularly college / university students, against the system of quota of seats introduced in 2008 under the Mandal Commission based reservation for the other backward classes - several of them comprising groups who have historically oppressed the landless untouchable castes in the rural areas - could be well understood. The blatantly corrupt and arrogant rulers of the country must be held responsible for making a complete mess of the education system.

It is in this backdrop of all pervasive corruption and crass commercialization of education - the flash point being the Supreme Court Judgment in April upholding reservation of 27% seats for the OBC students in the government funded institutions - which Prakash Jha’s latest film Aarakshan should be commented upon. Prakash Jha has a reputation as a successful film maker ‘with a point of view’. He has demonstrated courage in picking up currently controversial issues, including those plaguing his home state, Bihar; even tasting defeat in the last elections. The admirers of Jha surely did look forward to Aarakshan as a film in which he would bring sense and reason to the raging debate over the larger and more complex dimensions of this highly divisive and emotive issue. The film does open on a very promising note with a Dalit youth, Deepak Kumar ( Saif Ali Khan) facing humiliating questions about his humble origin at an interview for the post of a lecturer and thus not being considered suitable to teach in an elite institution where students belong to affluent and sophisticated background. The plot of the story, date lined 2008, revolves around Shakuntala Devi Thakral College, Bhopal. It unfolds how Deepak is beholden to his teacher-mentor Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) for his brilliant academic career and a job as lecturer - he is also in love with Anand’s vivacious daughter, Poorvi (Deepika Padukone). Principal Anand called ‘Guru Ji’ indeed personifies high values - academic, administrative and moral - associated with the Shakuntala Devi Thakral College.

The turning point in the plot pertains to the student unrest in the wake of the Supreme Court Judgment upholding the increased quota of seats in the educational institutions for the OBC’s. Prof Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpai), the Vice Principal of College, who does not share Anand’s approach on reservation and free coaching classes for the poor students, calls in the police to the college during the confrontation between the anti and pro reservation students. This action by Mithilesh Singh provokes a direct clash with Principal Anand. The turmoil of heated atmosphere of arguments over quota of seats leads altercation between Deepak and his upper caste friend, Sushant (Prateek Babbar) and also a verbal brawl with Prof Mithilesh Singh. Principal Anand, the quintessential disciplinarian, rebukes them for their unbecoming behavior in the college. He seeks apology by Deepak for his outrageous conduct when called upon to explain the matters. Deepak feels wronged; leaves the college and departs to avail scholarship to study in Cornell University.

Meanwhile, Prof Mithilesh Singh who runs a flourishing private coaching business with involvement of members of management of the college conspires successfully in getting Anand removed from his job. Anand has to go from pillar to post; he is even deprived of his house by the family of a friend he had helped. He, however, refuses to be cowed down and starts free coaching facilities in ramshackle cowsheds of poor but courageous Shambhoo Kaka (Yash Pal). Deepak also returns to join the struggle waged by Anand against the private coaching mafia led by Mithlesh Singh. The movie has a hastily contrived ending with Shakuntala Devi (Hema Malini) appearing on the scene like a miracle to ensure that all is well, that ends well, in a time honored ‘filmi’ formula–never mind, if that it incredibly strains the plot and story line!

Aarakshan is, to tell the truth at the point of pain, is a promise belied and an opportunity wasted by Prakash Jha to initiate a dispassionate debate not only on the sensitive and divisive issue of positive discrimination in favor of still despised and discriminated Dalit/OBC communities - but also the more explosive problem of mindless commercialization of education with the state looking like a helpless by stander. The talented director, as if, loses the grip of the script midway and leaves his audience furiously bored. The film has ‘produced’ quite a few unintended heroes like PL Punia, Chairman of the moribund National Commission for Scheduled Castes, not to name many compulsive contrarians among the Dalit ranks who are ever itching for waging battles of perceived Dalit-pride, without ever having set a single positive example of an institution for their amelioration.

The reviewer strongly recommends that young and old of all castes must see Aarakshan…notwithstanding the most ill advised bans in a few states ruled by the self seekers who are partners in the deprivations of the lower castes, Aarakshan had netted Rs 25 Crores at the box office during the first 4 days: Prakash Jha does not deserve to be a loser for having invested Rs 42 Crores in a film which should certainly shake up the people to sit up - and Think over the twin mortal evils plaguing India: age old caste prejudices and the national system of education crumbling under the dead weight of mindless commercialization.

Sudhir's Re-take


Aarakshan - Theatrical Trailer


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sufism - An Integrating Path to Peace

The following article was published in the bi-annual journal 'Studies in Sikhism & Comparative Religion', Vol.XXIX, No.1, January-June 2010, Guru Nanak Foundation, New Delhi

Music - the Soul of Sufism,
Golkonda, circa A.D. 1660-1670
How, why and when the concept of creation and preservation of all the animate and inanimate beings on planet earth and the entire gamut of universe around it got attributed to an Invisible yet All Pervasive Power - call it God or by one of other countless names in myriad of languages - originated has remained as mysterious a secret as ever for all the most diligent, dedicated and the cleverest inquisitive seekers. The 'Godhood' has been the most ennobling uniting as well as single deadliest divisive force in the history of humanity. It could be concluded with all the evidence available in the most authentic chronological details that all the big battles fought by the mightiest and - even those considered wisest and noblest - of various rulers were, after all, for meager earthly gains and soundly selfish reasons, though often invoking unearthly and 'higher heavenly' considerations in the names of new and ancient faiths. It is, therefore, with a much greater degree of solace that one can turn to the mystical Islam, popularly known as Sufism, for its emphatically stated principles of promoting a deeper sense of fellow feeling among practitioners of the different faiths envisioned in different segments of the only a planet proven inhabited by the species that has dared to conjure up the most fascinating 'dream-like-reality' of Godhood .

Interestingly, it was not till as late as early nineteenth century that the Western scholars of Islam popularised the term 'Sufism' for Islamic mysticism - then called Tasawwuf, literally to dress in wool, in Arabic, and Sufi being itself an abstract word from Suf - wool - obviously a reference to the coarse woolen garments worn by early Islamic ascetics. The words fuqura, plural of Arabic Faqir and Persian darvish - both meaning the 'poor' also used for the Sufis soon got elevated to be words of English. Though the sources Islamic mysticism have been variously traced to non-Islamic traditions - the Prophet is quoted, "There is no monkery in Islam", it is now widely accepted that the elements of the ideology emerged as a reaction and counter measure to 'increasing worldliness' and luxurious living of the fast expanding Muslim community of Arabs as rulers in the near and far flung new territories with many of them of them having highly developed religion-cultural traditions. The Sufis sought to solace and calm down the people by exhorting them to deepen their spiritual well being - and they were viewed better than the stern sharia enforcers. The Sufis were soon in the forefront of the missionary activity in the rapidly growing Islamic world. It goes to the credit of Sufis that they imparted a wider and more acceptable imagery to the Prophet and enlarged the scope of Muslim Piety. The creative Sufis gifted with literary accomplishments skillfully employed the local languages, often bursting out in sublime poetry, in the service of spreading Islam in Iran, Turkey, India and lands far, far beyond.

Heavenly Attraction (detail)
Mahmoud Farshchian, 1990
The evolution of Islamic mysticism included the stages of early asceticism and constant meditation in the pious circles as reaction against materialism that had set in during Umayad period (661-749). This was followed by increase in the fraternal groups of Sufis. It was Rabiah al-Adawiyah, a young lady of Basra, who is credited with developing the Sufi ideal of a love of God - seeking no reward of Paradise, having no fear of hell. The Iraqi school of mysticism founded by al-Muhasibi (d-857), further advanced by Junayad of Baghdad (d-910), laid emphasis on strict self control and 'purging of the soul' and tawakkul - absolute trust in God. The Egyptian Sufi Dhu an-Nun (d-859) introduce ma rifah - interior knowledge - in contrast to 'learnedness', while Iranian Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d-874) contributed the significant concept about annihilation of self, Fana - the sparkling symbolism that ignited the imagination of generations of later day brilliant mystical poets. The theosophical theorists of mystical dimensions of man's sojourn in this world and the Immensity of the personality of Prophet could not be far behind. This trail blazed by Sahl at-Tustari (d-c.896) was diverted to dazzling heights by his disciple al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj whose proclamation, Ana al-Haqq "I am the (creative) Truth" - derived from the thesis that God created Adam, "in His own image" - so infuriated the theologians of Shariat that they got him executed in 922 in Baghdad. Mansur, in his death, was soon to be consecrated as the, 'martyr of love' and his poems and other writings are considered the most exquisite examples of mysticism around the personality of the Prophet. Adopting an attitude of not needlessly provoking the orthodox theologists, the Sufis operated in smaller circles during the earlier centuries of Islam. They preferred to underline their adherence to established theological traditions. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d-1111), in his numerous writings including Ihya Ulum ad-din - the Revival of Religious Sciences - advocated moderation in the tendency in mysticism of equating God and the world.

The 13th century witnessed a further crystallization of the Sufi thoughts. The Spanish born Ibn al Arabi, elaborating on the relation of God and world and the underlying divine reality, put forward the theory of, "Unity of Being". The Egyptian Ibn al-Farid, the Persian Farid od-Din Attar (d-c.1220) wrote the finest mystical poetry while Central Asian Najmuddin Kubra discussed at length the psychological experiences of the mystics. It was, however, the poetic-philosophical genius of Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-'73) whose Masnavi in about 26000 couplets, dedicated to his mystical-master-beloved Shams ad-Din of Tabriz, is a rare compendium of broader religious ideas. Rumi became inspiration for whirling dervishes who promoted elaborate dance rituals and music for 'purificatory ecstasy' of the soul. Rumi's mystical poetic strains found resounding echoes in works of his younger contemporary Turkish Yunus Emre and Egyptian ash-Shadhili (d-1258). This was the period when Sufis became torch bearers of message Islam across the continents. The encounters with the Hindu traditions of mysticism encompassing the idea of divine unity and the Buddhist practices in Central Asia of life in Viharas in closer proximity to people for their service and welfare not to speak of the adversarial proximity with some grudging admiration for activities of social service by the Christian and even Jewish seminaries. The Sufis were inclined to pick up relevant elements from here and there in the cultures of alien lands as long they could serve the purpose of spreading the message of Prophet in conformity with the evolving Islamic Sunna. They were guided by the divine wisdom contained in the Quran, 'to be interpreted with increasing insight'. The doctrine of the Last Judgement; the assertion that, 'God loves them (mankind) and they love Him'; the strictly regulated life of Prophet - all provide the strong spiritual anchor of Sufism. Another fundamental concern in Islam has been Tawhid, "There is no deity but God" which thinker Junayd Baghdadi (d-910) had tried to explain, "Recognising God as He was before creation". The two aspects - God and creation - as one Immanent reality, Wahdat al-Wujud, were further reinforced in terms of Tawhid to mean that there is nothing existent but God.

Though Sufism had certainly been developing a distinct character by the twelfth century, great Sufi saints in the length and breadth of the vast Islamic empire were not rigidly disposed to fine tuning the nuances of the faith when under compulsions of commandments of the kings and what would work with the people. The Sufi influence in India came from north west when Shaikh Ali Hujwairi (d-c1079), widely known for his work Kashf al-Mahjub, settled in Lahore - his Shrine has been attracting a constant stream of devotees professing all faiths. Shaikh Muinuddin Chishti (1142-1236) estabilished himself in Ajmer after Shihabuddin Ghori defeated Prithvi Raj. Shaikh Bahauddin Zakaria(1176-1271), after blessing by Shihab al-Din Suhravardi of Baghdad, came down to Multan. The Sufi orders, silsilas, mentioned to be 14 in the Ain-e-Akbari had a vast expansion with the consolidation of Muslim rule in India - the most important being the Chishtia, Suhrawardia, Naqashbandia, Qadria, Firdausia, Shattria among the 'orthodox' and the Qalandars and Madars among the 'unorthodox'. With passage of time, many Sufi saints like Shaikh Muinuddin Chishti, Hazrat Ali bin Uthman - popular as Data Ganj Baksh - Shaikh Bahaauddin Zkaria, Shaikh Fariduddin Ganj-e-Shakar (1175-1265), Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Hazrat Mian Muhammad Mir (1585-1655) have become the most adored ones with their tombs becoming places of pilgrimage and huge popular fairs. While most of the Sufi saints shunned the seats of power and kept a safe distance from the rulers even when sought after, some others were known to play politics and influence peddling. There were trying situations during struggles of royal successions which got murkier and bloodier in history and Sufi leaders had to pay for their proximity to the losers. Dara Shakoh, the crown Prince designate by Shahjahan was not destined to be 'the Sufi King of Hindustan': and his spiritual guide and friend Sarmad, the naked Sufi poet, became Mansur of India and Prince among martyrs of faith.

Celebration of Learning (detail)
Mahmoud Farshchian, 1993
The Sufism has indeed left a strong imprint not only on the socio-religious history of India but has also made lasting contribution in the realms of literature, arts, philosophy, music, crafts and other dimensions of national life. The Sufis were, in their own way, the harbingers of 'soft power' of globalisation and even the dialogue of civilizations in their times. The concept of composite culture of the sub-continent can be traced to doors of the khanqahs of the Sufis. The Sufi centres encouraged and provided for education and learning among the masses.The message of social equality, particularly against the curse of the Caste system in Hinduism was never conveyed so loud and clear in theory and practice as by the Sufi derveshes. They were often advocating the causes of the poor and the deprived sections of society. Being tireless travellers, the Sufis propagated bridging of narrow cultural divides. The twin towers of strength of Sufis were their aquida ie faith and ishq that is love - both for Allah and his makhluq - creation. To quote Hazrat Bayazid Bistami:

If you aspire communion with God / Be kind, generous and just to your fellow beings.
If you desire effulgence like the dawn / Be magnanimous to all, like the sun.

As for India, the partition of the country on the basis of an untenable communal ideology has involved the challenging task of renewal of values of communal harmony not only in in India but tellingly in predominantly Muslim Pakistan too - what the Sufis had tenaciously worked to accomplish. No wonder that the studies in Sufism have been increasingly encouraged in higher academic institutions and there is tremendous interest in the movement epitomising Majma-al Bahrain - Mingling of Two Oceans - Hindu and Muslim mystical ideas. The most palpable and profound impression of Sufism has been in literature of various Indian languages. The Sufi impulses have inspired the sublimest poetry with the celebrated saints preferring the local regional tongues for the most intimate communion about the universal divinity for all. The poetry of Ameer Khusrow, Baba Farid, Kabir and many more in Bhakti-Sufi tradition, not to speak of later Urdu, Hindi, Sindhi and Panjabi poets but also the idiom of progressives, indeed draw upon the core of the span and spectrum of the rainbow of India's Bhakti-Sufistic heritage.

According to eminent Urdu writer - thinker Ali Jawad Zaidi, the Sufis were indeed the pioneers in promoting Urdu using sayings - malfuzad - and Dohas to serve their missionary purposes. Sheikh Gangoi was a great poet of Braj Bhasha and also wrote in Hindi under the pen-name of Alakhdas. The echo of Sufi sayings and ideas is apparently distinct in hymns of Namdeva (1270-1350) of Marathwada. Kabir (c1399-1515), the weaver, has been rightly hailed as one of the most popular saint poets of India who wove magic in a simpler language to convey his forthright views on the prevailing socio-religious hypocrisy. The celebrated Hindi critic Acharya Hazari Prasad Diwedi has commented that, "Kabir had a rare and powerful grip on language...he had no peer in the use of to satire and irony...he hit (hypocrites) so hard in simple and chaste words that the target had no choice but flee in surprise...he indeed holds a unique position in the millennium of Hindi literature". Kabir says it all in his inimitable way:

Main kahta hun ankhi dekhi / tu kehta hai kaagaz ki lekhi
I speak of what I observe; you are quoting the writing on a piece of paper.

Among other saint poets in the fraternity of sufis, mention must be made
of Sant Dadu Dayal, Mallookdas, Dharam Das and the Prem Marg - love path - saints like Kutuban of Jaunpur, Mamjhan who wrote Madhumalati, Malik Mohammad Jaysi of Padmavat fame, Usman of Ghazipur etc. The land of Sindh, the seat of the earliest civilization on the banks of the legendary river which has imparted its name to the country, had its own intimate interaction with Sufism with the mystical domain of Sindhi poetry led by Qazi Qadan (1463-1551) followed by Shah Abdul Karim (1536-1623) known for his beautiful Baits, Shah Inat (c1623-1712), Shah Latif (1689-1752) famous for long wail of firaq - separation - in Risalo and Sachal Sarmast (1739-1812) who composed beautiful kaafis and Ghazals. Sindhi sufi poets were also great integrators and remained above any narrow sectarian and religious divisions - Shah Abdul Latif says: Bestowal is regardless of caste and creed, all who seek may obtain Him!

It was however,among people of the land of five rivers, always fertile for fresh and healthier all embracing ideas since ages, that Sufism was received with enthusiasm and deeper commitment. Shaikh Baba Farid should be considered among the major figures of renaissance in India whose spiritual insights remain valid even after eight centuries. The inclusion of Farid's evocative hymns and shlokas in the Granth Sahib compiled by Guru Arjan Dev has been a subtle point of reference in the realm of theology in India apart from their literary merit. In the words of Prof Attar Singh, "By admitting these verses into the Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Arjan Dev no doubt added a new dimension and lent them universality by juxtaposing them with religious writing drawn from other traditions." It is interesting to study the medieval Bhakti, Sufi and Sikh poetry to discover that they were all 'struggling against the deadening enslavement to orthodoxies of religions'. Prominent Punjabi Sufi poets including Sultan Bahu (1629-1691), Bulle Shah (1681-1757) and Ali Haidar (1690-1785), following the path shown by Farid, had reacted sharply against indignities based on religion at the behest apparently of Naqashbandis. Even though the process dialogue initiated by the Sufis had a set back in the background of historical circumstances of bloody wars of succession between the Mughal Princes, the frame work of reference for reconciliation had got registered for ever in the minds of a vast majority of people.

What is the contemporary relevance of ideas propounded by the Sufis of sub-continent? Annie Zaidi, a young journalist, has narrated in a charming essay titled, A Little Bit Wild in the Faith Department in her recently released book how generation of young people like her in India - in South Asia as a whole - are irresistibly drawn towards Sufistic ideas and symbols, particularly the music and poetry popularised by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's clan and Rabbi Shergill's evocative, Bulla Ki jaana main kaun? not to mention legions of popular singers of of folk tradition and Bhajan circuit led by Hans Raj Hans. The films have also immortalised gems of Sufi poetry. The Deras of different persuasions are comfortable accommodating the Sufi values and some of them like the Radha Soami Satsang Beas have published scholarly commentaries and translations on the works of Sufis like Sarmad, Shaikh Farid, Bulleh Shah etc. The famous Sufi shrines are receiving devotees - expectant visitors - in hundreds of thousands. The state machinery would also appear to be well disposed towards the Sufi heritage in the region. The historians in India have no credible theory to explain mass conversion of people to Islam in India. Harbans Mukhia refers to an essay of 1952 by Prof Muhammad Habib stating that caste oppression might have been a crucial factor among the lower strata of the society. Interestingly, the largest conversions have taken place between mid 19th century and 1941 when Sufism had been in decline due to internal weaknesses. Some Islamists of the Fundamental kind, particularly the Deobandis, likened to Saudi Wahhabis, have been critical of several Sufi practices including the adoration of tombs. It is sadly true that all the faiths proclaim to unite people but every faith has its share of sharply divisive - many times violent - controversies.

In Sufi poetry, the sojourn of a person in the world has been symbolised as musafir - a wayfarer - and a saudagar - a trader - while the world itself is called a Sarai - inn - in the way where traveller / trader has a short stay. Bulleh Shah wishes to travel far, too far to find the Invisible Beloved:

Bindraban me gaooa charae / Lanka charh ke naad vajae
Makke da Haji ban aae / vahva rang vatai da
Hun kisto aap chhapai da!
You graze cows in Brindaban / You sound victory horn in Lanka
You change colors so wonderfully / From whom are you hiding now!

The 21st century had promised to be different for humanity but a decade later the world finds itsef deeply enmeshed in the ancient conflicts of the religious kind - fancifully termed 'clash of civilizations' - with weapons of total annihilation still proliferating while the life sustaining precious natural resources and ecology are fastly dwindling threatening life again in toto! One intuitively turns to pray with words of the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib,

Jagat jalanda raakh le, apni kirpa dhar
Save this scorched earth, O Lord, with your bountiful mercy


Author's father striking notes of Sufi-istic harmony and innocence
Circa, 1952


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tales of ‘Neta Ji’ and Netas Today - Re-envisioning India in 2011

Ambassador Bal Anand,
Panama 1997
The word ‘neta’, originally from Sanskrit, meaning ‘a guide, a leader’, has earned, via Bengali, the distinction of an entry into the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (First Published in 1911, Tenth–revised–edition in 2001, the one in my use now is Fourth impression 2006 ). ‘Neta Ji’, the suffix ‘Ji’ being a term of endearment, implies ‘a revered leader’, this prefix-title conferred by people of India on Subhash Chandra Bose, the iconic youthful leader of Indian National Congress - 28 years younger than Mahatma Gandhi - who dared to defy ‘Bapu Ji’ with a unique dignity, restraint and grace! The Google search on Neta Ji flashes in single click 1,210,000 entries in 0.19 seconds. In this epoch of rapid globalization of languages, Ghotala – scam - would surely make an honorable entry soon into the dictionaries of the five UN languages- the ‘scam’, of unknown since 1960’s, meaning fraud /dishonest scheme, is already a freely used and fully grasped ‘shabad’ in the 22 recognized languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of Bharat.

On the 15th of August, the day of the anniversary of Independence and the most painful amputation of people in the history of humanity India in 1947 when, in the stirring words of Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation awoke to ‘a tryst with destiny’, the heart beats of Indians, Pakistanis - and Bangla Deshis too - do feel, in today’s lingo, ‘Kuchh, kuchh hota hai … sensation of something, something’. In my consciousness, the first stirrings of the day were felt in 1951 as a student of 4th grade in the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial National High School in a grain market town, 20 km from Ludhiana. There was a big Prabhat Pheri - morning procession - by younger activists of local political spectrum of Congressmen in Khadi, the Socialists in several sartorial hues - and the Jan Sanghis in Khaki shorts - holding medium size Tirangas - Tricolors - raising slogan, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai - victory to Mother India’ - and, in between, also, ‘Pakistan, Murdabaad - Death to Pakistan!’ I particularly recall the colored illustration splashed on the cover of Saptahik Hindustan depicting Pakistan as a Devil with horns and Maulvi beard, holding a flag with Moon & Star, running away from the gun wielding Indian Jawan! I feel bewildered to imagine even today: What has really changed for the separated twins since their brutal birth? Are the people commodities to be divided and displaced according to the dirty games among the power hungry maniacs posing as their saviors - Netas or Rahbr-e Qaum?

This town of my tiny rented home since the summer of 1951 till I was pulled out by destiny in the summer of 1971 to join a career of ‘representing India’ had been founded in 1905, on the cross borders of Anrezi Ilaqa and the only small Muslim state in East Punjab, by Nawab Ahmed Ali. The Nawabs boasted Sherwani Afghan descent and the marital link to Delhi ruler Bahlol Lodhi. The town of Ahmedgarh had been necessitated by the newly laid out railway line between Ludhiana-Jakhal-Bathinda. It is said that the design of town planning of Lyallpur of West Punjab had been borrowed to provide for wider rectangular road and a central Plaza which was named Gandhi Chowk on the day of Independence. The location of the town on the borders had been ideally utilized by the freedom fighters of ‘Riyasati Praja Mandal’ and Indian National Congress of Anrezi Ilaqa to dodge the police in their hot pursuit, making the new town a centre of heightened political activity’.

The trend and tradition of political consciousness had continued to persist for about two decades after Independence. The local leaders would stake their prestige to fetch all famous leaders visiting Ludhiana - 20 Km away - to address people in Gandhi chowk. I was privileged as school / college student to listen to JP, Ram Manohar Lohia, Acharya Narendra Dev, SM Joshi, Neta Ji’s nephew Sisir Bose, communist stalwarts like AK Gopalan, Sat Pal Dang, Pandit Kishori Lal not to forget great Jan Sangh orators including Pandit Premnath Dogra, Prakash Vir Shastri, Veer Yagya Dutt, not to forget many singers of patriotic songs attuned to hit film songs. Meanwhile, the character of politics and quality of leaders seemed to have undergoing a metamorphosis witnessed strange changes after national elections in 1967. The spirit of sacrifice and idealism of the era of freedom struggle, as if, had vanished in two decades! I must, however, pay my respects to the saffron khadi clad Swami Harivishnu Dass ji who gladly financed till his last all the expenditures for the function of the Independence Day of hiring the required materials for stage, loud speaker, carpets, cleanliness of the area of Gandhi Chowk etc - and would make an impressive speech praising Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership and India’s rising prestige in the world. Comrade Tek Chand Diwana, the 88 year old freedom fighter who was also a great football player & famous for playing role of Lakshman in Ram Lila is my last surviving Neta-hero.

My thoughts on the Independence Day of India go to the poet-patriot (Padam Shri) Ali Jawad Zaidi (1916-2005). During my posting to Tehran (1975-1977); I had the good fortune to enjoy his enlightening company. When, on the eve of his departure due to retirement, I persisted in asking him about his personal encounters with the top leaders during the struggle for freedom, he reluctantly narrated the two such experiences. Firstly, the Neta Ji, the freshly elected President – Rastrapati - of the Indian National Congress in 1937 for the annual session in Haripur, “we, the group of the Students Federation of India mildly complained to Subhash Babu that we had worked so hard for his election but since his becoming of Congress, we are finding it very hard to get opportunity to meet him for deeper discussions ... Subhash agreed with us adding that he had indeed been terribly occupied and asked us about our place of stay … we hesitatingly revealed address of the obscure Dharamshala we had put in … Subhash said,” please expect me visit you after midnight … and lo, behold! Neta Ji did visit us around 1 AM and spent two hours with us talking about all the current national and international issues ...”

As regards the meeting with Gandhi Ji, Zaidi Sahib narrated how Sarojini Naidu had arranged the meeting and how their group of students got late due to his bad habit of oversleeping … Ms. Naidu was furious - cursed them and refusing to talk to them. One of the students concocted a false but clever story about a procession and police blockade of the way. The meeting was rearranged through kindness of Mahdev Desai. While his three companions touched Gandhi Ji’s feet, Zaidi did not because he believed it to be an act of orthodoxy and indignity. According to Zaidi Sahib, Gandhi Ji continued to ply the small Charkha and enquired about our activities, advising us to engage in some social service among the poor…’ I felt myself in a strangely mystic atmosphere … and effortlessly, unconsciously my hands were touching his feet when we took leave of Gandhi Ji’ revealed Shri Zaidi, in an emotionally choking voice.

Most interestingly and emotionally so fulfilling for me, I have been privileged to hoist the National Flag - the beloved Tricolor - 19 times in the foreign lands on Independence / Republic Days of India and also read out the messages by our Presidents. The 15th of August has been a day of deep reflections for me for the destiny of Bharat. Memories come crowding of the celebrations - beginning with school to Embassies of India in various continents. A really scholarly and inspiring school teacher, Ashni Kumar, made all the difference for me in the only life I can talk about. The poem in early fifties, 'phir baeson ke baad desh ne nutan jeevan paya - after so many years, the country has been bestowed a new life'; tributes in verse to patriots like Bhagat Singh, Jawaharlal, Neta Ji; inspiring film songs by Pradeep, Sahir, Kaifi - notwithstanding the challenges and privations, there appeared hope and sense of confidence in the air and in the leadership: now, perhaps, in spite of many an achievements, the masses do feel deprived on a daily basis and the air seems increasingly polluted by a sense of betrayal. We must remember what President S. Radhakrishnan had said, "the goal before our politicians must be service at any cost –and not power at any price".

Ashok, Akbar, and Nehru - the legacy is indeed long and challenging: a re-envisioning of India awaits!

Ambassador Bal Anand and family,
celebrating 50th Independence Day, Panama

W.H. Auden’s poem “Partition,” published in 1966. These moving verses highlight the absurdity of the way the border was created sixty two years ago:

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Maharajas of Patiala – Myths, Magnificence and Memories

The earliest memory of a Maharaja of Patiala ingrained in my mind pertains to the period immediately after independence of the country. Punjab was a picture of the life and limb torn apart by the wide spread communal violence in the wake of partition of the legendary land. My father, who had become a baptized Sikh a few weeks back - on 26th July and the ceremony costing Rs 7 and a quarter as recorded by him in the family record book called Vahie, was quoting passionately to friends the speech that Maharaja Yadavindra Singh of Patiala made at a public function in the neighboring town of Mandi Ahmedgarh. Father was profusely praising the grace and dignity and an extraordinarily taller stature of the Maharaja. He particularly described the drama how the stand of the mike (of those days) was not high enough and even the support of a stool and harmonium box could also not be of any help. Father explained how the Maharaja had taken the situation in good humor and began his speech joking that people of Mandi had never seen ‘the Lamba Jatt - the Tall Peasant - of Patiala’ before !

Maharaja Yadavindra Singh
I can vividly recall what I, as a child of four, had heard my father quoting forcefully from the Maharaja’s speech, "… Hindustan and Pakistan are now two independent countries … Nawab Sahib (Mohammad Iftikhar Ali Khan of Malerkotla who, sporting a Patiala-style blue Pagri, was present by his side), his forefathers and the Muslims of the this area have enjoyed fraternal relations with the Sikhs and Hindus … we will provide them full protection of life and property and they will have all the rights as equal citizens of India … But those among Muslims who desire to go to Pakistan, their departure will be facilitated … and those Muslims who stay back must be loyal citizens of India … and must not entertain any secret love for Pakistan, this would neither be fair nor would be allowed …" Father further tellingly quoted the Maharaja, "Beware of those Sikh leaders who proclaim that Panth is in danger … Panth of Gurus would never be in any danger … it is the pockets of greedy and corrupt leaders which face danger" (pocket was indeed registered as one of my first words of vocabulary of English). Father remained a big fan of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh and had led a local delegation at the Bhog ceremony of his great hero in June 1974.

I had come to know sooner that the Maharaja of Patiala had been granted an amount of Privy Purse of Rs 17 lakh per annum - and used to wonder how he would be spending this amount! My father had joined the Government Service as a Vaidya at a salary of Rs 88/pm in 1957 and my own starting salary in August 1966 as a lecturer in the DAV College, Jalandhar, according to the much mentioned UGC scales was Rs 200+ Rs 40/pm as D.A. ! I remember that a text book of ‘Shahiriat-Civics’ prescribed in the fifth class pertained to history and administration of PEPSU. A poem titled, 'Sahib Kaur di Vaar – Ballad of Sahib Kaur' by Mohan Singh described bravery of sister of the inexperienced and spoiled third ruler of Patiala who led the forces in repelling the attack of Maharattas on the state in 1793. The book had a laudatory chapter about Maharaja Bhupinder Singh but students had very naughty things to whisper about him-even Khushwant Singh won’t dare to print them! Never take minds of the children for granted about the material to be included in the lessons of the text books! A photo or a sketch in a school book – I am talking of my school years in the fifties of the last century - did surely leave a most enduring imprint on young impressionable minds. A framed photo of all the nine rulers of Patiala in the one room home of our neighbor - a competent carpenter who, perhaps, had worked in the Palace of Patiala for some tome - remains clearly etched in mind along with all the names.

Maharaja Yadavindra Singh had remained a prominent personality in the public service of independent India as the Rajpramukh of PEPSU till 1956; as President of Olympic Association of India; leader of Indian delegations to the conferences of the UNO and serving as Ambassador of India to Italy and Netherland. I had long last the opportunity to see this magnificent man in February 1962 when he came to preside over the Annual Sports Function of the DAV College Jalandhar. To my great surprise, again adjusting of the mike of the loud speaker revealed the enormous difference between short statured Principal Suraj Bhan and the tall towering Maharaja-to the wild delight of students. We had later lined up on the G.T. road to steal another glimpse of the smart Maharaja driving himself his stylish Mercedes car, sporting wings of a plane!

When I was at school, my father told me that I was born in the same year-albeit a few months later - in which Yuvraj Amarinder Singh was born (March 11,1942). Although my parental village was situated in the smaller state of the Muslim Nawabs
of Malerkotla, it was the grandeur and magnificence of the Sikh rulers of Patiala which was talked about in the family with pride and intimate emotional connection. The family lore and chronicles including the celebrated biography, in Brij Bhasha, of patriarch Baba Gajjan Shah (1734-1840) titled Gajjan Bilas clearly mention the closer spiritual relationship established with Patiala during the reign of Maharaja Sahib Singh (1781-1813).The family records further indicate grant of landed and urban properties to our ancestor by rulers of Patiala and Malerkotla as well as Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

The developments in the government and administration continued to move fast in the first decade of independent India. The PEPSU was merged in Punjab in 1956 during the re-organization of the states in the country. The long drawn struggle for a Punjabi speaking state culminated in the creation of present truncated state in November 1966. Maharaja Yadavindra Singh contested and won election for the first time to Punjab Assembly as an independent candidate in 1967 provoking a subtle satire by Fikar Taunsavi to pen a column titled, 'A Maharaja versus Potato' implying that the former ruler, like the potato among vegetables, was ready to mingle with any party. Meanwhile Yuvraj Amarinder Singh had been commissioned in the Indian Army in 1963 and was married on 31st October to Preneet Kaur daughter of S. Gian Singh Kahlon, ICS. The politics of the shrunken Punjab had been assuming a new character of Congress versus the Rest with Akali Dal sniffing power as a leading political force. India’s decisive victory in Bangla Desh War in December 1971 enhanced the political prestige of Smt. Indira Gandhi and Congress regained power in Punjab with Zail Singh as Chief Minister. Amarinder Singh was first elected MP in 1980 from Patiala and, barring a brief interval during the peak of militancy in Punjab, the Patiala seat has been with the family.

Meanwhile Maharaja Yadavindra Singh had opted to remain active in the public service at the national and international level, attending several conferences of the UNO He passed away on 17th June 1974 while posted as Ambassador of India to Netherland.
This prince, patriot and statesman made significant contribution to many walks of national life including education and sports. The Patiala Rajgharana must chalk out an ambitious and imaginative plan to commemorate the centenary of this many splendored ruler of the state. I, as a well wisher and admirer of the family, may venture to make some suggestions

  1. The establishment in Patiala or in Bathinda (the city of future in Punjab) of Yadavindra International Centre on the pattern of India International Centre, N.Delhi

  2. The creation of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh Chair of International Relations in a premier university of Delhi/Lahore
  3. Endowing an Annual Yadavindra Memorial Lecture to be delivered in Delhi by a personality of international repute

  4. Issuing of a Commemorative Postal Stamp

  5. Creation of a National Award for an outstanding Diplomat/Administrator of India . South Asia

  6. Publication of a high quality Commemorative volume on the Life and Times of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh

  7. Naming of the road leading to Embassy of India, the Hague, after his name.

  8. Installing his statue near Patiala House, N.Delhi 9.An exhibition of his personal artifacts/documents, photographs etc

  9. Yadvindra Public Schools to organize year long festivities/cultural programs.

There could be more ideas and inputs by persons who had the privilege of working with the late Maharaja

As for the former Chief Minister of Punjab-and the expectant Chief Minister - in-waiting - Captain Amarinder Singh, one would like to pray for him saying – Aapna Mool Pachhan i.e know thy true self. He must indeed prove himself a breed apart from the present species of politician in Punjab, parading as leaders but who are essentially ‘dealers’ - eager to sell down the drain whatever precious heirloom of the state their greedy eyes fall upon. The land and people are indeed cursed where the Representatives treat their election victory as ‘license to loot’ for five years! Captain Amarinder Singh must break himself free from the ‘Chakra Vyuh’ - vicious circle - of hangers on, particularly of the flatterers kind and the Khaki hue. The civil servants who have been privileged to function with him deeply admire his personal integrity, high intellect and right instincts - but these come out only in their one to one discussions. He has a historical role - a la Bihar - to make Punjab stand up and be counted as a promising player in the larger scheme of national developmental effort. He has to transform his party into a fighting fit unit free from petty factionalism - a Herculean task indeed but the experienced Captain would have to be strong and wise enough to prevail in the battle of ballot box due in months.

Captain Amarinder Singh who belongs to my generation should now be considered to be at the peak of his careers in public life. I recall how I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time in 1976 when he came to Tehran with a dream - team of agricultural experts. He wanted to negotiate a deal for a king size farm to be developed as a model for an agricultural revolution in the oil rich Iran. Those were the days of heady success story of Punjab. Time in Iran had, however, become pregnant with another brand of revolution. The practitioners of power politics must always be conscious of the illusion and reality of political power. Ultimately, only the deeds done with a sense of nobility, sincerity and humility for survive. Twenty eight years after our meeting in Tehran, I was welcomed by Captain Amarinder Singh to join the Congress Party on April 9, 2004 - hardly any one was ready to bet for a win by Congress on that date. Any prediction for the Punjab polls next
year or national elections in 2014?

I was told one of the most astonishing and baffling story in the palatial house in Tehran belonging to S. Rattan Singh Rangi, located in the vicinity of the Saadabad Palace of the Shahanshah. He was a respected businessman with family links with Patiala. I forget who the narrator was but the story ran as follows: "When the heir to the throne of Patiala was born on 7th January 1913, all the court Jyotishis - the learned futurologists of various disciplines - were summoned as per tradition … most of them predicted great goings for the newly arrived Prince … his extraordinary personality, wisdom and charm, achievements as a ruler, many worthy distinctions … but one of the astrologers, looking quite nervous, wanted to speak only to the Maharaja, in strict privacy … when it was agreed, he whispered in the ears of the proud father,’ O King, what my other astrologer- brothers tell you about the destiny of the Prince is quite appropriate and OK, but …, but, ahem, according to my interpretation of the various stars and the planets attendant at the time of Yuvraj’s birth … the great Prince is destined to die in a foreign land, doing a paid job !!!"

When i was born, thirty years later, in a mud home in an obscure village of his kingdom, situated at a distance of 52 km from Patiala,no astrologers were summoned to predict my future: that I too would be destined to do exactly the same job in the far off lands as one of their tribe had predicted with trepidation, in a trembling voice, for Maharaja Yadavindra Singh, soon after his birth in the Moti Bagh, one of largest Palaces in the world!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guru Tegh Bahadur – Mission, Martyrdom and Message

The following article appeared in the publication Guru Nanak Foundation, ND, Quarterly, 'Studies in Sikhism & Comparative Religion' Vol.XXX No.1, Jan-June 2011

The martyrdom, 335 years ago, of Guru Tegh Bahadur (April 1, 1621 - November 11, 1675) in the complex of Chandani Chowk – literally the moon lit square, the pleasure market in the evening of the royalty and aristocracy - facing the massive Red Fort and not far from the majestic Jama Masjid, both reflecting the might and splendor of, Shah Jehanbad, the new capital of the Mughal Empire at its zenith, has become the most defining moment in the history of not only India but the entire human civilization. Here lies the consecrated spot of an extraordinary example of the supreme sacrifice of life by the Ninth Guru - the most exalted teacher - of the then nascent but the popular integrating faith which had been bestowed the ‘Pothi’ - the Book, by his grand father, who had been martyred six decades earlier in Lahore.

The unique distinction of the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur is underlined by the much larger issue at stake - the freedom of conscience and right of an individual to profess the faith of his choice. Guru Tegh Bahadur had stood up to defend the persecuted people of India who were not even the followers the faith enunciated by the great predecessor of Guru. This self sought martyrdom for the fundamental human right of the freedom to profess any religion was a path breaking idea which culminated into a resounding echo in the adoption on December 18, 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations Organization and represents the heart beat of the Constitution of Independent India.

To understand the spiritual background of the transformation of Sikhism, it would indeed be revealing and rewarding to refer to the Bachittar Natak - Stanza 444 - where Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth and the Last Guru - points out that the two significant forces represented respectively by the First Guru, Baba Nanak (1469-1539) and Zahir-ud-Deen Babar (1483-1530), the founder of the Mughal Empire and their successors were created by God around the same time. The former represented the benign spiritual power and the latter, physical temporal power. Guru Nanak came into contact with Babur whose name finds mention in his verses in context of, "reproaching the Almighty - the Shepherd obliged to protect His innocent flock - for letting loose on them the lion - conqueror from Khurasan, bringing death and destruction on Hindustan." It is recorded in Sikh chronicles that Guru Angad Dev (1504-1552) had been contacted by Babur’s son, Humayun; Guru Amar Das (1479-1574) and Guru Ram Das (1534—1581) were paid cordial visits by Emperor Akbar; Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606) had also interacted with Akbar and but Jehangir had him martyred for his faith, and the allegation that the Guru had sheltered rebel Prince Khosrow. Guru Hargobind (1595-1644) had also faced the wrath of Jehangir and Shah Jehan; Guru Har Rai(1630-1661), Guru Har Krishan (1656-1664), Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) were all contemporaries of Aurangzeb (1618-1707). It may be pointed out that the rampant intrigues and conspiracies among the Mughal princes for succession in the wake of the passing away of liberal and farsighted Akbar combined with the sharp controversies of sects of Islam led by Sheikh Ahmad Sarhandi of the hard line Naqashbandi order created an atmosphere of distrust and confrontations with Sikh Gurus. When Sheikh Ahmed’s son Muhammad Masum, predicting Aurangzeb’s victory in the war of succession, became his mentor, an era of intolerance and fanaticism in enforcing the strict Sunni tenets of Islam became the order of the day during Aurangzeb’s long reign for a half century.

It is instructive to go into the details of the life of Guru Tegh Bahadur and understand the circumstances faced by Community of Sikh people during this period. Born in the early hours of April1, 1621 in Amritsar, the youngest of the five sons of sixth Guru Hargobind, Tegh Bahadur, as per the instructions of his father, was trained to be a rider and marksman and was also taught the various classics. He was, however, noticed to be of mystical temperament with disposition towards prolonged spells of contemplation and was even known as Tyag Mal-the Master of Renunciation. But his bravery in the battle of Kartarpur in April 1635 earned him the name Tegh Bahadur-the hero of the sword- from his father with whom stayed in Kiratpur for the next nine years. He was married, as per the practice, to Gujari on Feb.4, 1631. As desired by his father, he and his mother Nanaki and wife Gujari (1624-1705) made Bakala, a prosperous town not far from Amritsar, as their residence for the next two decades. He was engaged all these years in the spiritual studies and undertaking pilgrimages. Then came the call of destiny when the Eighth Guru Hari Kishan, before his untimely demise on March 30, 1664, pointedly indicated that the his successor-the next Guru- was to be found in Bakala. The emergence of many impostors –Sodhis of Lahore / Amritsar and descendants of Suraj Mal / Dhir Mal of Kartar Pur created a big commotion in Bakala for many months. The Sikh references profusely detail how a devotee, Makhan Shah Vanjara, a trader from Muzaffarabad, Kashmir announced from the house top on October 7-Guru Ladho Re-Guru has been found-proclaiming Tegh Bahadur as the Ninth Guru in the line of Nanak,
to the congregation gathered for Diwali.

Tegh Bahadur had to face continued hostility from the pretenders who created obstacles for him to enter the Hari Mandir and refused to respect the desire of the followers to hand over to him the Pothi prepared by Guru Arjan. After spending some time in Kiratpur, Tegh Bahadur, following the tradition of the Gurus’ house, founded a new township, and called it Chak Nanaki, on June 19,1665 - later to be known Anandpur - in the hill state of Bilaspur. He set out soon on missionary tours, accompanied by his mother and wife and a few devout disciples. Travelling to the south eastern region of Punjab, he got wells dug up at places of scarcity of water, inspired people to work honestly, weaning them away from tobacco and other intoxicants. He also visited Kurukshetra, Agra, Ittawa, and Prayag. Benaras,Gaya, and finally reached Patna. He resolutely refused to perform rituals at the various temples on the way saying,” He who trusts in God and makes an honest living to share with others and injures no one…need perform no other rituals…And, as for the ancestors, they gather the reward of what they themselves have sown and no one can bless or curse them after they are gone.” He proceeded further on tour of Kamrup (Assam) via Dhaka and preached there for about two years. He is also mentioned to have brought about a compromise in 1670 between forces of Raja Ram Singh, a general of Aurangzeb, and the local King. It is believed that he might have heard the news of his son’s birth on December 22, 1666 at Patna during his eastern tours which began in the middle of that year. He spent about three years in Patna after his return, taking special care to arrange instruction of his young son not only in Sikh religious lore but also in Persian and Sanskrit as well as in traditional sports including riding, hunting and swordsmanship, as testified by Guru Gobind Singh in Bachittar Natak.

It was during 1671-73 that the Guru returned to Anandpur, preaching all the way back to the devotees. He found that the condition of non-Muslims under the rule of Aurangzeb had worsened as never before. In a general order of April 1669, Aurangzeb called upon, "all governors of provinces to destroy with a willing hand the schools and temples of infidels; and they are strictly enjoined to put a stop to the teaching and practicing of idolatrous forms of worship". The celebration of festivals like Diwali and Holi had been forbidden and there were wholesale demolition of temples in the country. It was in the background of such crushing situation that a deputation of Kashmiri Brahmins led by Pandit Kirpa Ram Dutt of Mattan visited Guru Tegh Bahadur on May 25, 1675 at Anandpur and narrated their tragic tales. The Sikh chroniclers narrate that the Guru, after a thoughtful pause, advised them, "Tell the Mughal Viceroy that the Brahmins will embrace Islam if Tegh Bahadur, whom we revere as our Guru, is persuaded to do so." The wheels of the Mughal state moved fast; the Guru and his three companions namely Mati Das,Sati Das and Dayal Das were taken into custody at Malikpur, Pargana Ghanaula on July 12, 1675 and were sent to Sirhind where they were kept for about four months. They were eventually taken to Delhi on November 5, 1675 under formal orders from Aurangzeb. After the formality of trial, the Guru was made to witness the killing of his three companions in the most brutal manner- and was beheaded the next day, on November 11, 1675. The Sikh narrations detail how Guru’s body was cremated in Raisina area by Lakhi Shah Vanjara who put his house on fire to prevent detection by the authorities. The head was carried all the way to Kirtpur on November 16 by Bhai Jaita and his two companions and it was cremated the next day at Anandpur by his son, Gobind Rai.

It may be stated that a lot of scholarship has been invested in defining and elaborating the tradition of 'martyrdom' in the history of all the faiths of humanity. Originating from the Greek word, 'maryr', meaning 'witness', it has come to signify, 'willingness to die rather than renounce one’s beliefs or principles'; 'supreme self- sacrifice for faith bearing witness to its truth' and, in its purest form, martyrdom is a voluntary, conscious, and altruistic readiness to suffer and offer one’s life for a cause. In Western society, the death of Socrates (399 B.C.E), described in Plato’s Phaedo is an early example of a martyrdom that defended ideas. Jewish tradition assigns the honor of martyrdom not only to those who affirm the faith against threat, but also to victims such as those of the Holocaust, who were not given the choice. The persecution of Christians by Romans towards the end of the third century produced many early martyrs. In Islam, Shahid - the word for martyr - also means witness and it is in Hadith literature that the figure of the martyr is delineated in great detail as a unique person set apart from all other Muslims. The classical period witnessed the development of distinct proto-Sunni, proto-Shiite traditions - the martyrdoms of Ali while praying , unarmed ,in a mosque in Kufa; the Prophets grand sons, Hasan who was poisoned by an agent of enemy and Husayn who was slain in 680 C.E at Karbala have become central to Shiite Islam observance. The Sikh tradition pioneered by the twin supreme martyrdoms of Guru Arjan Dev( 1606) and Guru Tegh Bahadur certainly provided a unique vitality and spiritual strength to the suffering people to be ready to die for a life of honor following their faith. The uniqueness of the two martyrs lies in the authentically ample sacred verses for their followers to reflect upon and incorporate in their way of living.

Guru Tegh Bahadur, apart from his other remarkable qualities of head and heart, was a blessed poet with profound imagination and insight. The poetic composition of the Guru preserved in the Adi Granth-in the form of hymns (59) and Shlokas i.e. couplets (57), exquisitely set to 15 Ragas - musical modes - of Indian classical music, and is believed to be only a fraction of his work. According to Sikh sources, while proceeding to Delhi under the summons from Aurangzeb, the Guru experienced a spontaneous flow of poetry which was speedily scribed in Persian script by Sati Das - it was, however, seized by unscrupulous authorities branding it as charms. The language of the compositions of the Guru is main stream Hindi, popular in Uttar Pradesh ,Bihar and areas beyond where Guru had a sizable following. The concept of Vairagya-detachment - finds a dominant note in his verses-the whole world is ephemeral: ‘like the shade of cloud’; ‘false like a mirage’; ‘like a dream destroyed in no time’; ‘like a mountain of smoke’. The implicit point driven home is that a person should aspire for an honest nobler life detaching himself from greed, pride, luxury, sensuality. It is an enormous challenge to follow the right path in a world full of vices and blemishes - ‘the pleasures of Maya-Illusion - are unstable like the wall of sand.’ The solution offered by Guru is quite clear,’ Childhood, youth and old age are three stages of life, but without the remembrance of Hari - the Righteous One, all the three are futile.’ The weakness of body and flesh, fickleness of mind, agony of desire, emptiness of pleasures and the ultimate reality of Death are explained in deeply haunting similes and metaphors used by the Guru in his verses.

Guru Tegh Bahadur’s verses, hailed as the Divine Songs of Nirvana, indeed epitomize ultimate values of the spiritual heritage of not only India but entire humanity. We listen to the deeply lyrical and powerful voice of a poet-prophet who celebrates spirit of human freedom and Divine wisdom, keeping it all so simple and steeped in the fragrance of the purity of his own soul. The scholars of music of India have been fascinated by the patterns of the musicality of the Guru’s verses and the selection of Ragas reflecting most appropriately a special mood during the time of the day and the mystical nuances in the hymn. The hymns begin with Gaudi Raga, origin attributed to Gauda-east Bengal, and other Ragas including Asa and Asavari, Maru Ragini, Bilawal, Dhanasari, Devgandhari, Bihagda, etc have been befittingly employed. He is the only Guru to write hymns in Jayjavanti Raga, having the tonality of vigor, tenderness, prayer and aspiration. Interestingly, it is mentioned that Siranda, a modified variety of Sarangi, an invention of Guru Arjan, was a favorite instrument of the Darbar of Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh.

To sum up, it may be stated that Guru Tegh Bahadur who assumed the responsibilities to lead his people in the most trying circumstances - personal feuds in the extended family and increasingly oppressive regime of Aurangzeb - was quite clear and focused on his mission and the message and he set out to accomplish both with classical restraint and dignity. According to Professor K.R. Srinivas Iyengar, the two historical Shlokas-Guru Tegh Bahadur’s address to his son, "All human power has failed. / humanity groans in chains;... Lord, save them... as Thou didst save / The elephant that prayed." and Gobind’s reply, "All power is mine with Thy Grace, / The fetters of bondage are broken, For Liberty of Truth, everything is possible, / Lord, everything is in Thy Hands." – between them embrace the whole mystical tremendum, the passion and the tragedy of human despair, and the martyrdom that was the guarantee of the resurrection and rehabilitation. Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom in the heart of the mythological city personifying the heart of Hindustan and his message in the exquisite poetry in the language of his people will indeed continue to inspire eternally all those subjected to suffer under tyranny and injustice. He is verily the Chaddar - protecting shield - of the people of Hind, and beyond!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Giani Zail Singh - Limitlessness of Art and Craft of Politics

Reminiscences on his Birth Day

I can vividly recollect that it was around 21st of February; 1957.We had finished the sixth and the last paper of Middle Standard Examination in Govt. High School, Malerkotla. This Special examination, meant for the Govt. Middle Schools, was not mandatory for High Schools but we - the select three students - were sponsored by our school to appear for the scholarships awarded to those scoring high marks in this examination. I do remember that it was the time of the Second General Assembles of the States and the Lok Sabha Elections in India and the high-pitched propaganda by loud speakers was indeed in full swing. We could hear it loud and clear in the examination room, even though engrossed in solving our question papers.

The announcement on the loud speakers on that day informed that Shri Dhebar, President of the Indian National Congress, would address a public meeting in the evening in the ground of the Grain Market of the city. I got quite excited to have a glimpse of a leader who was the chief of the party of Gandhi and Nehru - the Party that had won freedom for the country. At the big public rally, I - then a child of 13 - was, however, impressed much more by the oratory in Punjabi and personality of a Sardar, immaculately dressed in the black Sherwani and churidars - and a well adorned white turban distinguishing him apart among the many crowding at the stage. He was soon holding the mike to introduce the frail looking Gandhian, announcing his full name - Uchharangray Navalshankar Dhebar Ji - and made a moving speech eulogizing the sacrifices of the Congress Party in the struggle for freedom. The name of this person, in his youthful early forties, was Giani Zail Singh, who was then Vice President of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. I came to know that he had himself been imprisoned and tortured in the notorious Princely state of Faridkot. It was confirmed in the later years that he was a faithful friend of the freedom fighters in my town, Ahmedgarh, including my school teacher Giani Sucha Singh ‘Dardi’ and other popular patriots in the area like Sardar Ganda Singh Kup Kalan, S / Shri Babu Ram Sood, Amar Nath Jain, Ram Sarup, Hukam Chand etc –all Advocates and Praja Mandalites (activists against native rulers) - in the neighboring state of Nawab of Malerkotla.

After serving for one year as a lecturer in English in the DAV College, Jalandhar, I was selected for Punjab Govt. Service and served in Govt. College, Bathinda from Sept. 1967 to June 1969. My soul mate friend, Prof Sat Prakash Garg, was quite intimate with many political animals of the area including the several working closely with Giani Ji. I remember meeting one Zora Singh Brar. There were tons of stories floating about his deep concerns for the marginalized masses of the formerly PEPSU area under the oppressive feudal lords; his being a rare amalgam of being a devout Sikh and a truly secular nationalist; his abundant humanity and humility as a politician and above all his fabled generosity towards old friends of the era of freedom struggle, not to speak of his magnetic charm to win new friends.

Giani Zail Singh, on the right, after release from the
Raja of Faridkot's prison, with his elder brother and father.
The politics in the state had undergone a quick sea change in the wake of the reorganization of Punjab in Nov. 1966 after the formation of the new Punjabi speaking state. The next five years witnessed a game of musical chairs with six chief ministers warming the chair and the situation of instability resulting in grievous set back to the progress of the state. The limited factional agendas and divisive communal politics of the Akali Dal and the then Jan Sangh sowed seeds of many avoidable problems in the newly born truncated state. The turning point was observed in the horizon in Dec. 1970 when Giani Zail Singh emerged victorious in a by election in Anandpur Sahib. On the trail of this victory, I became an authentic witness to a rare comic-politico event in my home town, Ahmedgarh. Shri Kishori Lal, who claimed to be Giani Ji’s comrade during the struggle of the Praja Mandal epoch, in moments of tall talking in the company of fun loving friends in the Gandhi Chowk-the Hyde Park of my town, got tricked into a bet that he could get Giani Zail Singh to come to speak to the people in the Chowk within 24 hours. And, lo, behold, the waiting crowds getting bigger and bigger-around 10pm, Giani Ji was seen alighting from the old Fiat car, smiling and holding proudly the hand of Kishori Lal. Though looking exhausted, he climbed the make-shift stage and exclaimed in a deeply hoarse voice, "when old friends call me, come what may, I have to come to reciprocate their affection and good faith-I would continue doing so even when I am not in this world!." He, of course, cautioned Kishori Lal to be more prudent in future in staking their friendship over trifles. Giani Ji had surely conquered the hearts of all the people gathered there - I being one of them, now a few months away to join the Indian Foreign Service. I had the privilege to call on Giani Ji in Oct. 1972 in his office as Chief Minister of Punjab, along with three other IFS colleagues, after we finished our District Training Program in Punjab. My career in the Foreign Service resulted in my lying abroad for the most of the years of Giani Ji’s active political career till his last. It was, however, always so instructive - at times deeply disappointing and disturbing too - to discuss with good old friends the complex forces at work during the long dark period of extremist violence in the Punjab. Some of them opined that the return of Mrs. Indira Gandhi to power in 1980 with a massive mandate against Janta Party’s sickening internal feuds and gross misrule had the seeds of degeneration and decay of political proprieties in her party. The naked parade of dynastic rule; the rag tag of Sanjay’s followers; the principle of ‘poodle loyalty’ above all; ministers turning money - spinners and ‘masterly mishandling’ of situation in the Punjab consumed not only the last four years of great Indira Gandhi but also singed a promising career of youthful Rajiv Gandhi. Giani Ji was destined to play –or some times denied to play-the most crucial role in the events pregnant with most tragic consequences for his beloved Punjab. What an irony of history: the most valiant and most patriotic Sikhs had been at helm of affairs in every walk of national life of India since Independence till a devout Sikh was elevated to the highest constitutional post of the land.

With Indian Cricket Captain, Kapil Dev
and the Cricket World cup in 1983
The memories, anecdotes, jokes, gossips - good, bad and ugly - of the colourfully simple life of Giani Zail Singh (May 5, 1916 - December 25, 1994), continue ‘Google-searching’ in the ocean of my consciousness - some one who never knew him personally. The well wishers of Giani Ji - and also those not well disposed towards him - it is some satisfaction that the book, in the first person, titled, 'Memoirs of Giani Zail Singh, The Seventh President of India' compiled by S. Manohar Singh Batra, who in the words of Giani Ji, "is a highly competent official, a retired Deputy Director General of All India Radio … my Officer on Special Duty since early 1986", was published in 1997. The 50 chapters of the book, Pages 317, Har Anand Publications make an engrossing reading for all those interested in a turbulent period of India’s recent history. The politicians of Punjab have preferred not to pen their memoirs. Giani Ji too willed the book to be published after his death. The Indian politicians, perhaps, are extra cautious to keep all options open till the last breath - the political truth could be conveniently modified according to the attendant and evolving individual ambitions. Giani Ji could muster limited belated courage, of putting on record - in words of English - his thoughts and perceptions on some of the fiercest political battles of complex national challenges in which he was caught- some time firing political salvos, sometime in the cross fire.

Born in a humble home of a peasant - carpenter family in the most backward part of Malwa region of Punjab and brought up under conditions of acute physical hardships and missing formal education, Giani Ji had indeed continued confounding his admirers and detractors by his consummate political skills in the ever turbulent political waters of not only Punjab but also at the Byzantine Delhi Durbar. As a popular mass leader, he reflected the quintessential ethos and aura of the sufferings and sacrifices during the freedom struggle of India. He had few peers as a forceful and mesmerizing orator in Punjabi and Hindustani. He had an elephantine memory of old comrades and even faceless congress workers in the country and believed in helping them without their asking for the favor.

The admirers of Giani Ji ruefully remember how his caste conscious opponents in his home state of Punjab derisively called him ‘Gulli Gharh’ - the wood worker. Punjab has been waiting since long the change in the caste of the chair of Chief Minister. The quintessential son of the soil and ever a hard realist and nationalist to the core, Giani Ji wisely chose to be cremated in Delhi, in the vicinity of memorials of the Father of the Nation and the First Family of the country. How the nation will plan to remember him in 2016 - the year of the centenary of his birth - will is quite instructive to watch.