Editorial / That time of the year
The other tradition
This Above all / Just the word for the occasion
People / Kalyan Singh
Letters to the editor

At the time of the budget, the finance minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, will take stock of the economic situation, which exhibits a half-empty half-full glass syndrome. Subject to some quibbling, inflation is at a low of around 2 per cent. The privatization programme seems to have finally picked up steam. With bulging foreign exchange reserves of 50 billion US dollars, the balance of payments is well under control. But exports are growing at less than 1.5 per cent in dollar terms. While the current account deficit is around 1 per cent of the gross domestic product, import growth of less than 5 per cent is also a symptom of industry’s travails. Food stocks, soon to touch 70 million tonnes, are both a plus and a minus, since they also represent a failure to reform procurement and distribution. If Mr Sinha gloats over these pluses, he needs to note that the minuses are far more serious. The GDP growth of 4 per cent in 2000-01 is the lowest since 1991-92, and even if growth in 2001-02 picks up to 5.4 per cent, this is a far cry from the 7 per cent plus between 1994-95 and 1996-97. While agricultural growth fluctuates, industrial growth is around 3.5 per cent and service sector growth is stagnating. In the organized private sector, employment growth has been stagnant since 1997-98.

More serious is the tapering of investments. Public investments have flagged throughout the Nineties. However, the lack of private investments is of more recent vintage. Foreign direct investment inflows are stuck in a band between 2 and 3 billion dollars. Despite some cuts, if inflation figures are believed, real interest rates are inordinately high.

The fiscal deficit (Centre plus states) is in a mess. Governance has collapsed in several states. The gap between promised reform and actual implementation is glaring. For long, the government has ascribed this crisis to cyclical factors, primarily the global downturn. But there is a structural problem and the global downturn bogey will not suffice. The question is, what can the budget do to redress the situation? A long wish-list of reforms is indeed possible. But most such reforms often involve the states. As in 2001-02, should the budget promise reforms that are not delivered and create hype, or should it stick to what the budget was before 1975, an annual statement of receipts and expenditure? Expenditure is largely exogenously determined and questions about credibility are mostly due to the government’s inability to implement recommendations of the expenditure reforms commission on downsizing. So Mr Sinha is likely to concentrate on revenue, barring hikes in defence expenditure and agro-related schemes. On revenue, reduction in the peak customs duty on industrial goods is virtually pre-announced. Cleaning up of the indirect tax structure will have to wait, since value added tax has been postponed by a year. Income tax rates cannot change, expect perhaps a reduction in the peak corporate tax by 5 per cent. Although changes in service sector taxation should be held up pending VAT, Mr Sinha is likely to bring more of them into the net. The key question is, does he have the political courage to remove exemptions, both on direct and indirect taxes? Such changes do not amount to hype. However, budget-related hype is also undesirable.


The events of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath have rendered the world colour blind. There are only two colours, black and white. This has not left unaffected remote West Bengal. Violence in the morning on Chowringhee and the revelations about the abuse of madrasahs have brought to the surface all sorts of well known prejudices which lurk below the so-called secularism and enlightenment of the Bengali bhadralok. Muslims, in the wake of all this, have become more defensive and insular and voices of reason within the community have been silenced in the knee-jerk reaction to batten down the hatches.

There are two profound failures involved here. On the part of the educated upper caste Hindus, there is the failure to recognize their bottomless ignorance about Islam, its culture, its beliefs, its history, its rituals. On the Muslim side, there is an amnesia about the different traditions that have gone into the making of Islamic culture. From within the Muslim society there should be a deliberate attempt to recover those traditions to put on record that Islam signifies more than dogmatism, fundamentalism and militancy. This conventional understanding of Islam, nurtured no doubt by men like Osama bin Laden and furthered by the demonization of Islam by the media and by ill-informed scholars, needs to be challenged.

All religions have within them a thrust towards unreason and militancy, but all religions also have other traditions feeding into and enriching them. The history of Islam is no different. In this article, I use a remarkable research monograph by Francis Robinson (The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia) to present a very rich tradition of scholarship and mysticism in Indian Islam. This tradition, I believe, stands in sharp contrast to the conventional image of Islam and of the kind of training and education being meted out in most of the madrasahs.

The ulama of Farangi Mahall are a group of teachers and scholars based in Lucknow dating back to the late 17th century. In 1692, one Mulla Qutb al-Din was murdered during a squabble over land in which he had no part. Aurangzeb, in consequence, granted his family a sequestered property of a European merchant in Lucknow. The family occupied this property and over time spread over a large muhalla. This was called Farangi Mahall after the original haweli granted by the emperor and the family came to be known by this name.

The descendants of the Mulla made Farangi Mahall into one of the major teaching centres in India. Scholars congregated here from all parts of India and from Arabia, central Asia and China. In 1896, Shibli Numani, a well-known Muslim savant said Farangi Mahall “is the very Cambridge of our India”. Students from outside Lucknow stayed with the family or at the Tila Mosque and their expenses were met from the Mughal exchequer and later from the family itself. For a very long time, the teaching was informal within the house; there was no central organizing institution, no school or madrasah. In the late 19th century, a madrasah was formed and in 1905 the teaching was given an institutional framework in the Madrasa-yi Aliya Nizamiyya which continued the work until 1969.

The real contribution to and the innovation in Muslim learning that the Farangi Mahall made was the Dars-i Nizamiyya, the curriculum it pioneered. This came to form the basis of most madrasah courses in India, including that of the Dar al-Ulum in Deoband. It is important to underline where this new syllabus was an innovation. Islamic education was normally divided into two categories: manqulat or the transmitted sciences such as exegesis (tafsir), traditions (hadiths) and jurisprudence (fiqh); and maqulat or the rational sciences in which were taught logic, philosophy, theology, rhetoric and mathematics. Without undermining the importance of manqulat, which had previously dominated the curriculum, the Farangi Mahall shifted the emphasis to maqulat. Grammar, logic and philosophy acquired greater weightage in the teaching.

There was a growing awareness among the scholars and teachers of Farangi Mahall that the world around them was changing and they sought to train their pupils, through the new curriculum, to be prospective lawyers, judges and administrators. They tried through the teaching of logic, philosophy and dialectics to sharpen their reasoning and improve their ability to make judgments. This awareness was heightened with the advent of British rule and with it the introduction of English education and the Western sciences. Traditional Muslim learning was obviously threatened by these changed circumstances. From within, Indian Islam felt the need for reform and renewal. At one extreme was the development of modern learning in Aligarh; at the other extreme was the madrasah of Deoband which turned more inward.

The Farangi Mahallis took on the more difficult challenge of preserving Islam and of reforming it to adapt to the new circumstances.

The Farangi Mahallis advocated a break from the blind following of tradition because dogmatism would lead to stagnation. They introduced changes into the Dars-i Nizamiyya as it was taught at their madrasah. Modern subjects that were taught in government schools — arithmetic, algebra, geometry and geography — were made compulsory. Even the teaching of English was introduced in the higher classes. Scholars of the Farangi Mahall emphasized that the canons of the Islamic tradition, including the Quran and hadiths, could only be properly understood when located in their historical context. There was a noticeable attempt to shift away from dogma and faith, the two characteristic features of a completely theological education.

These changes were not without their impact on the inner world of the Farangi Mahall. The younger members of the family increasingly took to Western education from the Forties and the Fifties. The search for livelihood and survival sent Farangi Mahallis outside their cloistered existence. As their intellectual world opened up, there was also a physical dispersal. Now members of the family are to be found all over the world.

The story of the Farangi Mahall has a number of significant aspects. First is the fact that within Islamic tradition it represents a distinct attempt to maintain that tradition by adapting it to meet the needs of changed times. The ulama changed the curriculum but did not surrender the core of their beliefs and their adab. Second, there was a shift within the pedagogy of the Farangi Mahall from dogmatism to reason.

Rationality was never the preserve of the European Enlightenment. Non-European traditions of scholarship and teaching had their own ways of cultivating reason and of seeking a more rounded and civilized life. In this quest, not all of them rejected what the West had to offer.

Muslims seriously concerned about the need for reform within Islam and the madrasah curriculum can read the history of the Farangi Mahall with profit; so can a state power desirous of aiding that reform process from the outside. And those proud of their modernity can become aware that no one has a monopoly over reason and enlightenment, and become at the same time more conscious of their ignorance of the different traditions that have gone into the making of this subcontinent’s rich culture.


The poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was a stickler for rhyme and metre in poetry: if the lines did not scan, it was not poetry. He discounted blank verse. “It is like playing tennis without a net,” he used to say. Taking the cue from him, I believe tarjumah (translation) to be good must follow the pattern of the original, otherwise it is no more than an explanation of the poem. This is no easy task, and takes hours going over a couple of lines with rhyming dictionaries, dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms to get close to the original. Fortunately, English has a vast vocabulary and a painstaking translator can get the substance as well as a bit of the music of the composition.

Dr K. Hussain, an engineer now living in Bangalore, was smitten with Urdu poetry and decided to translate his favourite lines from 20 poets ranging from Meer Taqi Meer down to Ali Sardar Jafri. The result of his labours is Glimpses of Urdu Poetry: Guldasta, a bouquet of many hues. Although the introduction is by T.P. Issar who translated Ghalib into English verse, Hussain opted for the easier task of doing it in prose. Its principal benefit is that it lucidly explains the meanings of verses which readers not familiar with the language would find difficult to comprehend. He should also have borne in mind that the only justification for making a new translation is that it improves on those already in existence. A prose version cannot make that claim.

I give a few examples: “Zafer, admi usko na janiyega/ Woh ho kaisa hee sahib-o-fahim-o-zake/ Jisey aish mein yaad-a-khuda na rahee/ Jisey taish mein khauf-e-Khuda na rahee.”

Hussain’s translation reads: “Zafar, do not consider that person a human being, however wise or intelligent he may be/Who does not remember god in pleasure and happiness/And who does not fear god in vengeance or anger.”

The same lines were rendered earlier as: “Zafar know him not as man/ However, a clever, wise benign/ Who in pleasures pursuit forgets his god/ In angers passion wrath divine.”

Hussain has quite a few lines from Allama Iqbal. Among them perhaps the most quoted exhortation: “Khudi ko kar buland itna/ Keh kar taqdeer say pehley/ Khuda banday say khud poochay/ Bataa teyree razaa kya hai?”

He translates it as follows: “Elevate your self-esteem and dignity to such lofty height/That even god shall ask the devotee/Before every ordination/tell me what is your wish.”

The same lines have been rendered earlier as follows: “Endow thy will with such power/ That at every turn of fate so it be/ That god himself asks of his slave/ Tell me, what is it that pleases thee?”

I do not mean to belittle Dr Hussain’s valiant efforts to bring the best of Urdu poetry to those not familiar with it. He owes it to himself and his readers to try to render the lines he has chosen into verse.

Tears in heaven

Nina Sood’s son, Naresh (Kuki), died on April 16, 1987. He was only 28 and had been married a little over two months. He was a strapping young man who occasionally suffered from bouts of asthma. One mild attack and he was gone. Nina was devastated and did not know how to cope with her loss. Her faith in god was shattered. Everything in the home reminded her of her son: his clothes, his working desk, footsteps coming to the door and mysteriously falling silent. She decided to put her grief on paper. The outcome is a deeply moving book about death and dying: Turbulence and Tranquility . It is not a cheerful book to read, but a grim reminder that death gives no advance notice, comes to people of all ages and remains an unsolved mystery.

Nina questions herself on the subject: “Death had cruelly brought a young man’s life to an end, a complete halt, but it also brought the commencement of suffering and agony. All the doors to joy, life and laughter had abruptly closed and there appeared to be only grimness, darkness and hopelessness combined with a sense of futility that encircled us. The colour from life had disappeared and the world had become shades of black. It became pitch dark as though the power supply had been permanently extinguished. There was not a ray of light that penetrated. A life had ended, but the torment had just started. No doubt the agony would change its shape and form but would it ever end? This was not another exam you had suffered and endured where failure invoked, ‘better luck next time’. We, your family shared this examination. There was no consolation that life like the river flows forever. If there is rebirth, his soul would continue for eternity or infinity. The holy Gita assures that ‘He is not killed when the body is killed’ and that ‘a man casts off his worn-out clothes and puts on new ones,’ but I knew only this son, this life.

“If you were to be born again, you would no longer be my son, the child I had lovingly raised and guided to manhood. In your ‘new clothes’ I would not recognize you and you might even shun me causing greater pain. At this crucial period of my existence, rebirth failed to excite me and I could not help but feel that god had forsaken me. Where had I gone wrong to have my son taken away from me?”

Nina tried silence and found it soothing. She found crying released pent-up emotions. She heard a psychiatrist who said the period of mourning should not continue after a year but rejected his advice. “Mourning can be stipulated for a week, a month or a year, but for the bereaved it is a lifetime.”

Nina found that sharing other’s grief lessoned her own. She writes: “The greatest reality of life is found in the funeral grounds or the burning ghats where eventually everyone, rich or poor, great or small, must halt briefly before travelling on that last journey to what we can only hope will be a spiritual opening to an eternity of serenity. For a while, after your death, I lacked the courage to attend a funeral; neither could I handle it, nor face the harshness of it.

“Gradually, and for which I am grateful, courage began to return and the realization that there is no escape from truth — there is only acceptance and there is no other conceivable solution. It is not possible to flee the actuality and neither is it feasible to selfishly enshroud oneself into one’s private grief and escape from the world. Each individual suffers in varying manners and it is important to console and provide a support to comfort others in their time of need — often just to be available is sufficient: in helping others too one is unconsciously healed.”

I recommend this book to those who have been afflicted by the loss of their dear ones.

Something to laugh about

Once during the lunchbreak, Sir Winston Churchill (in those days he was the leader of the Conservative Party, which was in opposition) went to the loo. There was a lot of space available near the door, but he went ahead to the farthest corner. Some of his colleagues were surprised and asked Churchill the reason for going to the distant corner, when there was a piss-pot available near the door itself.

Sir Churchill replied, “Don’t you know the rule of Labour Party. Whenever they see anything big and strong, they nationalize the same, thus I don’t like to take the risk of being seen.”

(Contributed by Jasbir Singh Bindra, Ludhiana)



This is payback time

Those were heady times for Uttar Pradesh. Ram was the presiding deity over its politics and Kalyan Singh, the principal pujari, ever at the Lord’s beck and call in Ayodhya until his own government came to grief in 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Kalyan Singh may have exited from the BJP in disgrace but his loyalists — and they are considerable — still look back wistfully on the halcyon ‘90s. And as the BJP fights with its back to the wall to rustle up a respectable tally in these elections, quite a few partymen are pining for Singh, wondering why he had to confront Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he had everything going for him.

Had he remained, they claim, he would have become the BJP president and then perhaps Prime Minister. After all, he combined the two most important aspects of contemporary heartland politics in his persona –– Mandal and Mandir –– and the synergy had made the party almost invincible in UP.

But in these elections, Singh chose to ignore Ram and focus entirely on his antecedents as a backward caste leader, although he represents the aspirations of the Lodh Rajputs who form just three per cent of the UP electorate. However, because the Lodh Rajputs are concentrated in certain pockets of west central UP and Bundelkhand and not spread out all over the state like the Dalits, they matter in 22 of the 403 constituencies. The figure seems inconsequential but, in a bitterly contested fight, Singh has given the BJP sleepless nights.

Because Singh, on his own, is a potential spoiler of BJP prospects in this cliffhanger of an election. As long as he was around, it was taken for granted the Lodh Rajputs would vote blindfolded for the lotus. But, ever since his unceremonious exit from the party, he has looked for revenge. With the Lodh ace already up his sleeve, Singh has worked hard to ensure not a single caste vote goes to the BJP.

On the outside, his campaign had the usual dose of promises and sops. They were listed on huge hoardings of his party, the Rashtriya Kranti Party (RKP), which was floated after he left the BJP.

But his election slogan was more direct and casteist: “Kalyan Singh ki pehchaan, maan, samman, swabhimaan ka elaan, rashtriya pehchaan par na lagen chot, Rashtriya Kranti Party par lagen vote.” (Kalyan Singh’s identity lies in his call for regard, respect and pride; to ensure that national identity is unharmed, vote for RKP). The slogan has reportedly gone down well. The oft-heard refrain of the Lodh Rajputs in his constituency Atrauli was: Singh’s victory was a matter of honour for them, their leader had been humiliated by the BJP and he should be avenged by an even bigger margin than before.

The spirit of vengeance saw Singh’s former compatriot Sakshi Maharaj being heckled by the Lodh Rajputs when he “trespassed” on his terrain on the BJP’s behalf.

Sakshi had left the BJP a little before Singh and at his behest, worked against the party in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls. That year, BJP’s tally was reduced by half. The party wooed him back to try and counter the ‘Kalyan effect’. But even the party ruefully admitted it was a “mistake”. There was no way the Lodh Rajputs would desert Singh for another caste leader.

The discovery of Mandalism was a long and painful process for Singh. When he first became chief minister in 1991, the saffron wave managed to override Mandal. Even backward-caste Yadavs and Kurmis were heard saying they voted for the BJP because of Ram. Singh ascended the gaddi in Lucknow, vowing to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

But the BJP’s strategists, like the now marginalised K.N. Govindacharya, foresaw the short life-span of an emotive issue and reckoned that sooner or later, caste would be back as the deciding factor in elections. So they chose Singh to head UP’s first BJP government over other contenders like Kalraj Mishra, Lalji Tandon and Rajendra Gupta ––– all from the upper castes. If mandir was the mascot, Singh was the shield against a common charge that BJP was a party of traders and babus. He was its backward caste face.

For some time, he seemed content to play ball with the Brahmins and Thakurs, inducting ministers from these castes whenever a directive was issued by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Murli Manohar Joshi. The subtext was Singh owed his position to the upper caste goodwill and he should not rub them the wrong way.

Simultaneously, there was pressure from the BJP’s Jats, backward castes and Dalits to address their aspirations as well. For example, a meeting of the Lodh Rajputs held in Lucknow in June 1992 blasted Singh for not mustering the courage to speak up for Uma Bharati, then the target of an inner-party canard which sought to link her name with Govindacharya’s. The speakers highlighted the fact that despite a Lodh Rajput chief minister, there was not one member of their caste in the IAS and IPS. The message reached Singh. But careful not to annoy the upper castes, he merely sanctioned one lakh rupees for building a memorial in honour of a nineteenth century Lodh Rajpur warrior of Madhya Pradesh, Rani Avanti Bai.

He didn’t remain discreet for long. In 1993, he vented his fury before the top brass for not giving enough tickets to backward caste candidates and as the Ram appeal faded, his pro-backward caste sentiments grew stronger. Strong enough to address a suo moto press conference at a BJP national executive meeting in Bhopal in June 1996, in which he demanded that tickets should henceforth be given in proportion to the population of castes. By that yardstick it meant that over 50 per cent candidates should be from the backward castes.

The “Hindu hriday ka samrat” (monarch of Hindu hearts), as he was known, was repackaging himself as a Mandal messiah. The exercise won him more enemies than friends in the BJP. His one-time mentor L.K. Advani had valiantly defended Singh when he openly rebelled against the installation of Mayawati as the chief minister for the second time in 1998. But even Advani washed his hands off his protege when he came out in the open about his association with legislator Kusum Rai and began bad-mouthing Vajpayee.

If Ram was responsible for his rise in the BJP, Rai precipitated his downfall. But given the fact that caste and caste alone has shaped UP politics, Singh will be around for some time, if not as king then perhaps as kingmaker. Now that’s bad news for the BJP.



A hard nut to crack

Sir — Jagmohan Dalmiya, the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, is forever in the thick of controversies (“Dalmiya no-balls ICC again”, Feb 20). He is now engaged in a war of nerves with the International Cricket Council, a body he once headed. Recently, he managed to defer an important meeting of the ICC’s referees’ commission on the Mike Denness issue. Most likely, this was meant to buy time. But the secret of Dalmiya’s success lay in the way he set Asian cricketing nations against the English, Australians and South Africans. The British after all do not have a monopoly over the policy of divide and rule.

Yours faithfully,
Rahul Sharma, Pune

Figures at odds

Sir — According to a recent World Bank-Confederation of Indian Industry joint survey, most entrepreneurs consider West Bengal to be one of the worst investment destinations in India (“CM’s image does nothing for Bengal”, Feb 11).

However, the same day, there was another report on a Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy study on the investment climate in India, the results of which completely contradict those of the World Bank-CII study. The CMIE report ranks West Bengal second among all states with respect to investments during 2000-01 and says that investments into the state have been picking up in recent years. Gujarat ranks first in this study, with investments of Rs 11,818 crore, followed by West Bengal, with figures of Rs 7,670. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh — ranked above West Bengal in the World Bank-CII study — are lower down, having attracted investments of Rs 4,523 crore, Rs 1,255 crore and Rs 2,379 crore respectively, in 200-01.

Instead of misleading the reader with such contradictory statistics, the media should try being more objective and consistent.

Yours faithfully,
S.N. Roy, Calcutta

Sir — Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s efforts to attract investments into West Bengal have received a jolt with the recent findings of the World Bank-CII survey. This is not surprising given the poor work ethics in the state, the result of increasing trade unionism over two decades of Left Front rule. The lack of proper infrastructure has made matters worse.

However, in recent times, Bhattacharjee and his partymen seem to have mellowed in their attitude toward investors. That this has not helped much is evident from Mitsubishi’s refusal of further investments in Haldia Petrochemicals Limited, on grounds that the returns were unsatisfactory. Bhattacharjee should accept that he has an uphill struggle ahead, and that it will probably take another 24 years to undo the damage done.

Yours faithfully,
Aditya Deb, Calcutta

Deluded by devotion

Sir — The latest disturbance at the Sai Baba’s ashram in Whitefield shows how fine the line is between devotion and fanaticism. The assailant was apparently a star-struck youth who carried an air pistol with him in order to ensure access to Sai Baba. In 1993, a bunch of acolytes, angry at the clique surrounding the Sai Baba, tried to assasinate him. The fault in both the cases does not entirely lie with the devotees. They are the product of a system which treats the Sai Baba like god, and as long as the system is in place, these incidents will continue.

Yours faithfully,
Anand Sharma, Ranchi

Sir — The report, “Devotee with pistol triggers murder scare” (Jan 18), quotes “critics” who describe the Sai Baba as a “trickster”. I would like to point out if any of these critics ever need medical assistance, they would find that the two hospitals administered by the Sai Baba rank among the best in the world. The Sai Baba also runs a university in Prasanthi Nilayam, as well as colleges in Bangalore, Anantoui and Jaipur. This is not trickery, but public service. Furthermore, the Sai Baba doesn’t want people to call themselves his “devotees”, as they are termed in the article. These are self-styled epithets. His aim is to equip people to lead better lives. The only things mandatory in his institutions are “human values” which promote understanding of all the world’s religions and cultures.

Yours faithfully,
Reba Sarkar, Calcutta

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