The debate starts once again, “Should Muslims participate in politics in a democracy, since ‘democracy’ is itself not an Islamic form of government?” Let me try to put this in perspective. Before I begin let me state that I am not talking about the philosophy of democracy i.e. Supremacy of the People instead of Supremacy of Allahﷻ. Let me state also that in terms of Islam, the only one worthy of worship and obedience is Allahﷻ and that only Allahﷻ has the right to make laws which He did and His Messengerﷺ conveyed to us. Anyone who considers laws opposed to the laws of Allahﷻ as being superior or even permissible, has committed Shirk. This article is about the issue of Muslims living in democratic countries, often as minorities. What must they do? What options do they have and what are the consequences of these options?
To the question, “Should Muslims participate in politics in a democracy, since ‘democracy’ is itself not an Islamic form of government?” I would like to state that first of all, there is no specific form of government that is ‘Islamic’. If anyone disputes that statement and says that the ‘Khilafa’ is the only form of government that is permissible in Islam, then we have to ask why it is that ever since the ascension of Yazid bin Muawiyya, monarchy has been accepted as ‘Islamic’ even by Sahaba who lived under Yazid and supported his rule? This continued even though the terms, ‘Khalifa’ and ‘Khilafa’ continued to be used off and on, until the institution of Khilafa was finally abolished in 1923. For the record, the Ottoman rulers called themselves ‘Sultan’ and not ‘Khalifa’, though the government itself was called ‘Khilafa’. How does that work?
So, what is the Islamic form of government?
Islam is concerned with the nature of the government and not necessarily its form.
Consider this: the Khilafa Rashida itself followed three different processes to choose a successor in the case of the first three Khulafa.
In the case of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) it was an election of the Supreme Leader by lesser leaders in Madina. This was the usual way of the Arabs when electing a new Ameer or Chief of their clans where the decision would be taken by a few significant and powerful elders/leaders and everyone else would accept and support it. So also, in this case, it was not one-man-one-vote involving the entire population of Madina. Even if it had been, hypothetically speaking one could have argued that the people of Makkah, Ta’aif, Najd and all the tribes of the Hijaz had not voted. Yet, the leader being chosen would have authority over all Muslims. Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was elected by the people who had gathered in the Saqifa Bani Sa’ada and was later ratified by the rest of the community in Masjid An-Nabawi when other people gave him the Baya (Oath or Pledge) of Allegiance. In the election in the Saqifa Bani Sa’ada, which itself was not planned but was impromptu, many of the important Sahaba of Rasoolullahﷺ including Sayyidina Ali bin Abi Talib (R) were not present and neither was their opinion sought. This was not deliberate or by design but because Ali bin Abi Talib (R) was busy with the burial of Rasoolullahﷺ he was not disturbed, and he gave his pledge the next day.
But since Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was already accepted as the foremost among the Sahaba and was their leader, nobody objected and they all, including Ali bin Abi Talib (R) gave him their Pledge. They remembered that Rasoolullahﷺ had always sought his advice and used to give him precedence over everyone else because of him having been the first man to accept Islam and for his service to Islam and to Rasoolullahﷺ. They remembered that Abu Bakr (R) was Rasoolullahﷺ’s companion in the cave during their Hijra from Makkah to Madina. People remembered that Rasoolullahﷺ had given him Imamat of Salah from the Thursday before the Monday when he passed away. For the Sahaba, that was a clear sign that Rasoolullahﷺ preferred and had thereby nominated Abu Bakr Siddique (R) as his successor. Having said that, there are people to this day, fourteen centuries later, who differ and say that the Khilafa should have gone to Ali bin Abi Talib (R).
The fact that Ali bin Abi Talib (R) himself never said this nor did he object to the leadership of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) and gladly gave his Baya (oath) of Allegiance with sincerity (what else do we expect of Ali bin Abi Talib (R)?) cuts no ice with them. We will put that dispute aside as it is not relevant to this discussion and look at what happened two years later, when Sayyidina Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was dying.
Abu Bakr Siddique (R) took the advice of the Asharum Mubashshara (the 10 Sahaba who had been given the good news of Jannah by Rasoolullahﷺ) about his proposed choice, Omar ibn Al Khattab (R), as his successor. All of them except one (Zubair bin Awwam (R)) accepted this choice and so Abu Bakr Siddique (R) called Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) and nominated him. This action of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was in keeping with the informal but clearly understood and accepted hierarchy among the Sahaba in which the Asharum Mubashshara came first followed by the Badriyyeen (Sahaba who participated in the Battle of Badr) and then everyone else.
Ten years later when Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) had been stabbed and was dying, he called the rest of the Asharum Mubashshara and told them to choose one among them to succeed him. Some of them declined to accept the role of Khalifa. There were two contenders who remained. Abdur Rahman ibn Awf (R), who was a scholar among the Sahaba and one of the wealthiest businessmen of the time was himself from the Asharum Mubashshara and who had declined to be considered for Khilafa, was chosen to pick between them. He decided to consult the Sahaba who had participated in the Battle of Badr and other significant leaders in Madina and at the end of this consultation, he borrowed the Amama (turban) of Rasoolullahﷺ and wearing it, he ascended the Minbar of Masjid An-Nabawi and announced Othman ibn Affan (R) as the leader who had been chosen to succeed Omar ibn Al Khattab (R). Everyone accepted this choice, including Ali bin Abi Talib (R) who had also accepted Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) as Khalifa and worked under him as a judge.
Othman ibn Affan (R)’s Khilafa ended in war and Ali bin Abi Talib (R) was forced to accept the Khilafa to put an end to the worst turmoil and violence that the Muslims had ever seen. However, this was also contested, and we have a history of ever more complex conflicts thereafter. Once again, I am not going into details here as they are not relevant. What is relevant however, is that twenty years later, when Muawiyya bin Abi Sufyan (R) was dying, he nominated his son Yazid bin Muawiyya (also called Yazid I) as Khalifa, thereby dispensing with the entire selection/election process and converting the Khilafa into a hereditary monarchy.
This became the default Muslim (Islamic) form of government all over the world, from the Banu Umayyah who started it, to the Banu Abbas, Fatimi, Ayyubi, Saffavid, Mughal, Uthmani (Ottoman) and other rulers right down to our modern times, who all accepted hereditary monarchy as the way Muslim lands were to be governed. Before we blame the kings however, let us reflect on the fact that none of their subjects, including Sahaba, all the Imams of Fiqh, all the Ulama of the Tabiyyin and their followers including to this day, have ever criticized or refused to accept hereditary monarchy, calling it ‘unislamic’ nor called for the establishment of the Khilafa. One reason could be that the Khilafa Rashida itself was established in three different ways. So, which of them would one choose?
The point that I want to make is that it appears from reading our history that Islam is more concerned with the nature of government than its form. Our great classical and modern scholars seem to be agreed upon this and this seems to be the majority view. Islam is concerned with how the government is carried on; whether it establishes the laws of Allahﷻ as mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, whether it establishes justice or not, whether the poor and weak are taken care of, whether there is corruption or not, and whether law is enforced so that crime is minimized if not eradicated. It is not concerned with how the government itself came into being or its structure, if that government does what all good governments are supposed to do i.e. good governance. Therefore, different forms of governments were accepted as valid and legal if they provided good governance.
Of course, from the Islamic point of view, for a government to be considered Islamic, whichever form of government it may be, it must follow the Divine Laws of the Shari’ah and must not legislate against the Laws of Allahﷻ. Governments are free to legislate and pass laws to ensure the best for all people, without denying, altering or going against Divine Laws. For examples, laws of taxation, zoning of cities, regulation of road traffic and so on can be made because they don’t contradict the Laws of Allahﷻ. However, laws which make Halaal what Allahﷻ prohibited, for example, interest-based banking, consumption of alcohol and other addictive substances and so on, are not permissible and any government that makes such laws would be unislamic even if the government was run by Muslims.
I am not claiming that democracy is the best form of government from a Islamic theological or philosophical perspective but that it is the best among all that exist today. There are some clear issues about parliamentary democracy which must be borne in mind. A parliamentary democracy is the rule by political parties, where the party which gets the most votes rules the country. This means that independent candidates, no matter how good they are, have no chance to be effective or to be able to form a government. Candidates who stand on tickets from any political party must necessarily follow the party line in all matters, no matter what their own opinion may be. The party is run, not always by elected representatives but often by its ideologues and leaders, who need not be elected at all but who direct all policies and actions of the party.
It is in this context that we must look at democracy today when some people say that Muslims must not participate in democracy because it is not ‘Islamic’. My contention is that there is no such thing as an ‘Islamic’ form of government. What is ‘Islamic’ about a government, lies in its actions of governing. Obviously, there is great misunderstanding about forms of government which is exacerbated by our general lack of knowledge of history so that we have no perspective or decision-making ability. We must correct this urgently.
What is the role of Muslim citizens who live in democratic countries? Should they participate in government, from voting, to standing for election to discharging their responsibilities in difference capacities in Parliaments and Senates? Or should they abstain from doing any of these things. And if they should abstain, then how are they to ensure that their rights, needs and issues are represented and addressed by a government that they didn’t elect or show any interest in?
My contention is that democracy, like monarchy is simply a form of government; in terms of governance. Citizens of democratic countries must participate in democracy for the simple reason that all change can only be initiated and implemented from within. As a matter of interest, if we take the very first form of government of the Muslim State after Rasoolullahﷺ passed away, it was a ‘democratic’ decision. As I mentioned earlier, it was different from our present form of universal suffrage leading to universal suffering (except for politicians) but it was democracy, nevertheless.
The argument that most of these countries are not Muslim (meaning that the rulers are not Muslim) is met with two arguments:
- How ‘Islamic’ is a government where the rulers are Muslim but permit interest-based banking in their realms, when they know perfectly well that Allahﷻ not only prohibited it but declared war on behalf of Himself and His Messengerﷺ on those who participate in interest-based banking? How can a government, which is classified as an enemy of Allahﷻ by the definition of the Qur’an, be called Islamic?
- In the Shari’ah we follow the principle that if you can’t do (have) everything, you don’t reject or stop doing everything.
So, if we can’t have the perfect state of government that Rasoolullahﷺ provided when he was the ruler, we will live with and support rulers (and governments) who provide justice, safety, law & order, economic development and general protection of rights and privileges even if they do other things which are not perfect. We don’t support them in things which are against Islamic law (e.g. we will not participate in interest-based banking, even if it is allowed in the country) but we will support them in everything that is for the benefit of everyone.
Authority can be delegated. Not responsibility. Responsibility remains with the original person. Meaning that if the one to whom authority was delegated fails to perform, it is the one who delegated it, who will still be responsible. Often there is confusion between authority and responsibility. Authority is the permission to act. Responsibility refers to the consequences of the action. That is why training is very important, before delegating authority. The ruler delegates authority to various officials, but the responsibility remains with the ruler whether they succeed or fail. It will be called the success or failure of the ruler. So also, the CEO, Head of Family or whatever; delegates and should delegate authority, because he or she can’t do everything themselves. But the responsibility i.e. accountability, remains with them. If they delegate authority without preparing their subordinates or delegate it to people who are incompetent, then it is their rule or tenure or performance which would have failed.
We, the people of the nation, through the ballot box have delegated the responsibility of running the nation to those we elected. Hence, we retain the responsibility for their success or failure. It comes back to my favorite political quote: “We get the government we deserve”.
We should realize that we have delegated authority. Not responsibility. So, if those to whom authority was delegated, failed, we need to take back the authority and realize that to give ourselves good government is our responsibility, not anyone else’s.
In conclusion I would like to state clearly and unequivocally that Muslims living in democratic countries must participate in government in every way knowing that it is entirely in keeping with Islam to do so. They must participate because Islam orders them to support all that is beneficial for everyone, Muslim or otherwise and to do that in a way that showcases Islam for the rest of the world. Muslims must participate in democracy, because only by participation can we ensure that our interests are addressed, and our needs met. We have seen many examples of what happens when we don’t participate.
The first thing to do therefore is to ensure that your name is listed as a voter. Then YOU MUST GO TO VOTE. Whether it is raining or not, whatever be the situation, you MUST GO AND VOTE. Remember this is the only opportunity that you have in a democracy to be heard, to influence your own future and to protect yourself from those who wish to hurt you.
Finally, a party is elected not by the majority of the population of the country but by the majority of those who cast their vote. This last line is the key to modern democracies and the reason why you must vote. If you don’t enroll yourself and don’t go and vote, then don’t blame anyone else for the result. You are responsible, and you will pay the price.
The tea plantations of the Sub-continent are a unique environment, be that in South India, Assam or Sri Lanka because they represent a completely artificial man-made community. The areas where tea is grown were, until a hundred years ago, pristine rain forest. Then came the British, having discovered wild tea in Assam as well as with stolen tea seedlings from China, which broke the tea monopoly of that country. Workers were transported from the plains of Tamilnadu for South Indian and Sri Lankan (Ceylon) plantations and from Orissa and Bengal for the Assam gardens. In South India most if not almost all of them were Dalits. They were housed in colonies according to their native areas. They built temples and either one of them officiated as the priest, having learned the rituals in Eklavya tradition (unofficially from some kind priest who would teach him) or they hired a poor Brahmin, who because he was paid by them, didn’t prevent them from entering the temple. This was not the case (and to this day it is not the case) in their own homelands, where Dalits, though officially classified as Hindu, are not permitted inside Hindu temples. This resulted in an egalitarian tradition which continues to this day, where everyone participates in all festivals and religious functions. The estate manager especially, irrespective of his religion, is expected to officiate at all religious functions of all religions and is specifically invited as the Chief Guest. Generally, this merely means putting in an appearance and flagging off a temple procession or lighting a lamp to signify the beginning of a ceremony or some other symbolic gesture. But it is nevertheless important and taken very seriously.
There is a book called Red Tea, by Paul Harris Daniel, which is a novel but is based on fact. The author took sworn affidavits from those whose stories he told. This book was published by Higginbotham’s in 1969 and was later made into the Tamil film ‘Paradesi’. The book gives a good account of what life in the early plantations was like and what the real price of tea is, not in money but in lives and blood of animals and men. Not to speak of the tremendous damage to the rain forests of Northeast and South India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon in those days). But those were the days before there was any awareness about these things and after all we were a colony to be exploited for the benefit of the British Empire and so we were; thoroughly.
When I joined planting in 1983, this was all history but there were still old workers who had seen a lot of what I have written above. One of them was Kullan, who was in his 70’s when I met him in 1983. We would sit on my veranda in the night and he would tell me stories about the ‘old days’ (Palaya Gaalam). That is the benefit of learning the language (Tamil, which I didn’t know a word of until I joined planting) and of having a good relationship with your workers. It was in the course of one of those sessions that he told me in a very matter of fact tone that the bungalow in which I lived (where we were sitting right then) was the estate hospital in those days and in the monsoon when there was an epidemic of cholera, many bodies were simply thrown into the ravine that was a little way behind the bungalow. “That is why their ghosts are still wandering here, Dorai”, he said to me. I must say that none of them ever bothered me, though Kullan was not the only one who mentioned ghosts in that bungalow.
The Muslim workers in Murugalli Estate where I was posted decided to dismantle the temporary shed that they used as a masjid and build a small, but permanent concrete structure in its place. They had collected some money and the company also gave them a small grant. But when they did the math in the end, they discovered that they had no money for the centering sheets to cast the concrete roof, nor did they have money for the labor to cast the slab. They came to me for advice to resolve this issue. I spoke to Mr. Dakshinamurthy, the Mayura Factory, Site Engineer, and he readily agreed to loan them the centering sheets free of cost. He also loaned them the concrete mixer. All that remained was the labor. I suggested to them that we do a working Sunday and get all the Muslim men to help with the labor and the Muslim women to make some food.
“Why do you need to pay for labor to build a masjid when we are all here?” I asked them. They all agreed enthusiastically. So, the following Sunday that is what we did. What fun we had!!
The Muslim workers in Murugalli were all from the Mallapuram district of Kerala. The women made some wonderful Malabari Biryani and we started early in the morning after a large mug of highly sweetened Malabari tea. We set up a human chain from the mixer to the top; I was on the top. The men started a chant in Malayalam as they passed up the concrete containers and we started pouring the concrete. This is a job that needs to be done without stopping, so as the day advanced and we became tired, the work became progressively more difficult. But the spirit of the work, the fact that we were building a masjid, and the promise of the Malabari Biryani, which was making its presence felt as its aroma floated on the air as it cooked, kept us going. By late afternoon the final load was cast, and we came down. Then after washing up, we sat down to a meal that was more delicious than I remembered eating ever before. Was it the food? Was it the hunger? Was it the fact that we were eating it after a day well spent? I don’t know. All I know is that it was wonderful to eat.
There is a sad ending to this part of my story. Dakshinamurty suddenly died in a very bizarre accident. He was at home one weekend and was having his head oiled. The barber who did the oil massage for him twisted his head to crack his spine. This is a very common practice in India and is done all the time without any adverse result. However, in Dakshinamurty’s case the man accidentally snapped his spinal cord. He was instantly paralyzed from the neck down and two days later he passed away. Sadly, he could not see the completion of Mayura Factory, the project that he had started. D.R.S. Chary stayed with me till the project was completed and then returned to Chennai where he lived. A couple of years later, I heard that he also passed away. I mourn the passing of these good people with whom I shared some wonderful times.
When Mayura was finally built and was to be inaugurated, Mr. AMM Arunachalam sent priests to do a puja – Ganapathy Homam (Havan), which was to start at 2:00 am the next morning and would go on for several hours. To my astonishment, Mr. AVG Menon called me and said, “AMM wants you to officiate as the representative of the Murgappa family at the puja. If you don’t want to do it, then he asked me to find someone else.” I was astonished to say the least because I am Muslim and I had never imagined that I would be asked to officiate at a Hindu puja, that too one which was so important to the Murugappa family. Obviously, it was a great honor and highly unusual. I told AVG that I would not actually be worshiping if I participated but he said that was alright. I asked him what I needed to do. He said to me, “You need to go there at 2:00 am when it starts and sit there with the priests. They will recite the slokas and every once in a while, the head priest will give you some grains of rice, which you must throw on to the fire.” That seemed simple enough and so I, a Muslim, officiated at a Ganapathy Homam on behalf of the Murugappa family at the opening of the Mayura Fatory in the Anamallais. I would like to believe that the extraordinary success of the factory was a result of my participation in its inauguration. In today’s India I wonder what happened to that India which I lived in. Where did it all go?
Once the puja was complete, we got ready for the formal inauguration to which the entire Board of Directors was invited including the Chairman Mr. AMM Arunachalam. This was followed by a lunch at the Group Manager, Mr. AVG Menon’s bungalow in Sheikalmudi. The building of Mayura Factory was a truly historic occurrence because tea factories are not built every day. Most in the Anamallais were over eighty years old at the time Mayura was built and commissioned (1985). On top of that it was the largest and most modern factory in India with computer-controlled systems and all kinds of bells and whistles. Since I was the man on the spot, so to speak, I had to be in many places at once and managed to do it. Everything went off well. Lunch finished late and we returned home close to 5:00pm. I had been awake and working for 48 hours straight with perhaps a short nap on my feet. But the day had not ended yet for me. We, my newly wedded wife and I, had a formal dinner to attend in Mudis.
Among the customs of plantation life was that of ‘calling on’ the seniors of the district. When you came in new or got married and your wife came to the estates, you called on the seniors of the district to introduce yourself and her. You telephoned or sent a letter saying that you would like to call on them and asked when would be convenient. These were formal social meetings and you were treated with great dignity and grace. This ‘calling on’ was usually for tea unless it was somebody you knew already, in which case you would be invited to dinner.
We had just got married (March 1985) and I returned with my wife, post haste to the estate because Mayura Factory opening was due. Two days after our marriage we boarded the train for Coimbatore from where we drove up the Aliyar Ghat of forty hairpin bends. My wife was violently sick all the way up the Ghat. Being prone to motion sickness, the Ghat road was not doing her any good at all. I was very concerned because this Ghat road was a given if we lived in the Anamallais and with my wife being so sick on it, it didn’t seem to portend well for us. The prospect of a repeat performance every time we traveled was definitely not something to look forward to. But as it happened after a couple of trips my wife got over her motion sickness altogether. Maybe the Ghat road shocked it out of her system.
As was the custom of the plantations when anyone got married and returned with his wife, there was a round of parties to meet the couple. So also, in our case and since I was the Secretary of the Anamallai Club, I had more than my fair share of friends and so we had a party to go to every night. The parties were formal suit and tie affairs and the hostess would go to great lengths to cook special dishes in honor of the guests and at the end the couple would be given a gift. In a place where social relationships were very important, these parties were not simply for entertainment. They were rites of passage and thresholds of entry from bachelorhood to marriage, which gave you a higher level of status and respect. They also had a ‘snob value’ associated with who invited you and who didn’t. I didn’t bother with that at all, but then again, I was invited by everyone, so it didn’t matter. The parties were also a good way to introduce the new bride to a way of life that was foreign to her and helped her to make contacts with senior ladies and others more experienced in this lifestyle, which could be challenging for someone born and brought up in the city. Most people who go to tea gardens for a holiday in good weather don’t realize the difficulty of that environment for those who must live there all year round.
The estate workers also welcomed the Assistant Manager when he returned with his wife. In my case, the Candoora workers were the first. As our car rounded the bend off the Sholayar Dam and came towards ‘Black Bridge,’ we were stopped and requested to alight. We both came out of the car, glad for the chance to stretch our legs. The road was lined with girls who sang a welcome song and showered us with flower petals as we walked through this guard of honor. We were taken to a small pavilion which I realized had been made by tying the best sarees of the women to the poles and decorated with lots of flowers. Tea garden workers can be the most loving people in the world and if you are good to them, they appreciate it and reciprocate. I saw many examples of that in my decade long career. We were garlanded and sat at a table on the two grandest chairs that they could find. Then we were served tea with biscuits and sweets. It was then that a depressed fly decided to end its meaningless life in my wife’s tea cup. But my wife being the perfect lady that she is, merely fished out the fly and drank the tea without batting an eyelid. An amazing performance which saved us from a lot of embarrassment. Those poor workers had taken so much trouble to welcome us that it would have been very ungraceful to complain, even about the suicide of a fly.
Then speeches were made, and the women danced and sang another song in our honor in which we were mentioned repeatedly in sometimes a humorous way and sometimes with great respect. The amazing thing was that this song was made up then and there and they sang about various habits of mine, including singing while I rode my motorcycle. People observed you and remembered and mentioned what you did. All the more reason to ensure that whatever it was, remained good and honorable. At the end of this song and dance there were some speeches by the local union leaders and one supervisor and then I was asked to speak. It was permitted for the manager to speak in English and the speech would be translated. But I had learnt Tamil for occasions such as these and spoke it well, much to everyone’s delight. When I had finished and thanked them for all their trouble and expressed our gratitude for the honor that we had been granted, they gave my wife a gold ring as their gift as a mark of their love and honor for me. I was floored. These were poor people who had collected money for this, something which was not expected of them at all. What could I say? As I mentioned earlier, Managers and workers in the plantations form bonds that are more like family than anything else.
To return to the daily dinner parties in our honor, these daily night outings were so frequent that my wife could recognize a road only in the dark. The parties, enjoyable though they were and were a good way to meet friends who lived too far to visit frequently, could be very taxing as they tended to go on very late. I was expected to put in an appearance at the morning muster on the estate at 6:00 am no matter when we returned. The night of Mayura Factory inauguration (the day that started at 2:00 am), we had been invited to dinner at the home of our dear friends, Prema and Ricky Muthanna in Mudis. Ricky was the General Manager of BBTC and we were honored to be invited to their home. As it happened, there was no time even for a short snooze in the afternoon thanks to the inauguration and to top it all, my car was once again in hospital. I didn’t fancy the idea of going all the way to Mudis (about thirty km on serpentine estate roads, decorated with potholes) on my motorcycle. I asked AVG Menon to borrow his new car, an Ambassador, for the evening and he graciously agreed.
We set off at about 7:00 pm as the dinner was for 8:00 pm. I was exhausted as I had been awake for 48 hours, but we set off, my wife and I, on this long drive. We arrived at Prema and Ricky’s house to a very warm welcome. My wife and Prema became friends instantly and have remained friends all these years. Ricky and Prema’s home was a delight, very tastefully decorated and one of the iconic bungalows in the Anamallais. It was the only bungalow to my knowledge which had a central courtyard with a veranda all around it and so it had a garden inside and outside. Prema had called a lot of people in our honor and the house was full of our friends and some others who I knew by name but was meeting for the first time.
All plantation parties (except in my house) started with drinks, which the men consumed in large quantities while the women sipped soft drinks and discussed matters of great import. As I was not one for the spiritual experience, I would take my orange juice or fresh lime soda and chat with whoever was still on mother earth. But as many left for higher altitudes in proportion to the spirit inside them, I would usually take myself off into a corner and contemplate the world. That day I was so sleepy and tired that my eyes were self-shutting unable to withstand the weight of my eyelids, while the party was in full swing. I was clearly out of it. Prema saw me in that state and said to us, ‘Yawar looks like he is going to drop. Let me give you dinner so that you can eat and leave. I have no idea when these men will eat, and you look like you won’t last too long.’ I agreed wholeheartedly, and we ate, said our farewells quietly and left.
Even up to that point I had my faculties still intact. You had to be alert when driving in the Anamallais, both because of the road conditions as well as the possibility of coming upon a herd of elephants or gaur around a bend. That night was mercifully elephant free and we reached Lower Sheikalmudi Estate without incident. As I took the final turn on the road leading up to our bungalow (the ‘Tennis Court Bungalow’), I relaxed and that was my undoing. The next thing I knew, there was a crash and the car came to an abrupt halt. I was shocked back into awareness and realized that I had driven off the road. The left front wheel of the car was hanging off the side of the road in midair with the front fender resting against a tea bush, which was the reason we didn’t go all the way down into the ravine. The chassis was resting on the road bed. My wife and I were shocked. It was 2:00 am and there we were.
I realized that this was not a good situation because the car didn’t belong to me. It was Mr. Menon’s car and a new one to boot. It was therefore my responsibility to get out of this situation. It didn’t even occur to me that I could leave the car where it was until morning and then get assistance to take it out of its predicament. I had crashed it and it was up to me to get it out. And I had to do it right away; it was not even a matter to think about. As it was, the car was directly below a stairway that led up to our house. I got my wife to walk up to the house so that she would be safely home. Then I went in search of a tractor to pull the car out. I knew that the leaf transport tractors – Massey Ferguson – used to be parked near Mayura Factory, about two kilometers from where I was. Our roads had no street lights and it was a dark night. The tea fields were home to wild boar and other friendly species, not to mention several species of snakes, but none of them was my boss while AVG Menon was. So, I hiked off in search of a tractor. On the way I called my good friend, mechanic Thangavelu, because there was no way that I could pull the car out alone. He and his ever-present smile came out of his house as if he had been waiting for me. Both of us got to where the tractors were parked and selected the one we wanted.
None of the tractors had self-starters and used to be parked on an incline so that you could roll down and start the engine. And they had no lights; I never understood why. Working in starlight, I got into the driver’s seat, rolled down, and started the tractor. Now we needed a tow rope. Thangavelu recalled that the telephone company people had been working on a line passing through one of our fields and had left a coil of telephone wire there. So off we went, with Thangavelu standing on a plank behind me, holding the seat as I drove the tractor. We picked up the coil of wire and drove back to where the car was; hooked up the wire to the chassis at the back and pulled the car back on the road. When I examined the damage, I saw that the tea bush had taken the shock and except for a small side indicator light, nothing was broken. That was a big relief to put it mildly. Thangavelu and I, then took the tractor back to its parking spot and I drove home at 3:30 am. I still recall the first thing that AVG asked me when I told him that we’d had an accident in his new car. He said, “I hope you both are alright?” I told him that we were fine but that his new car had been inaugurated with a broken indicator light. He was amused and laughed it off and said, “That can be fixed. I am happy that nothing happened to you both.”
That is why we used to call him A Very Good Menon (AVG Menon).
For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.
I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.
The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I have hunted enough in my youth and lost interest in killing things as my connection with nature strengthened. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually. And to the rain in Guyana, where because of the Trade Winds which brought the rain, it rained on most days in the evenings for a little while and then cleared up.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.
Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Candle light dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game, but being rained-in has its benefits.
I have always looked for challenges. Anything that comes easily does not excite me. My learning, that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I was constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product. I reclaimed swamp land and planted cardamom and set up bee hives and produced cardamom flavored honey. I reclaimed illegally cultivated land bordering our tea and planted tea in it adding over 50 hectares of land to the estate. I planted vanilla under rubber and successfully pollinated and harvested the vanilla bean; to my knowledge the first time this had been done in South India. When I say, ‘I’, I mean my team. I had one of the best in the world, each of them close friends who worked with me with total devotion and dedication and who I was very proud to call my own. I trained several of them, when they came to me as probationers and while not all were equally happy during the training, as I am a hard task master, every one of them was thankful for what they received and have remained lifelong friends.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.
Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone and creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:
- That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
- That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
- That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
This fear of taking risk seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power. That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away. This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth. That growth is not looking inwards with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.
So, what is the alternative?
In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.
Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route in my view only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical requirement of success in my view is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of in myself all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.
It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; to analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.
A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.
Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. I discovered that if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. And I did. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.
Just to close the point, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in childhood and education, work life is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for. That is why work produces stress.
Berty Suares, my dearest friend
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers. While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.
If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.
The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………
What is it that enables some leaders to continue to be inspirational and not lose followers even when their decisions may not be to their follower’s liking? This is a very critical dilemma of leadership, of walking the tightrope between populist actions and doing what needs to be done and risk losing popularity. In today’s political environment of playing to the gallery, leaders are often held to ‘ransom’ by their followers who give or withdraw support because they don’t like what the leader’s decision. Or don’t understand his wisdom. In modern times, the example of Al Gore comes to mind, where Americans chose George Bush over him for President of America. One can fantasize about how the world would have been different if the author of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, had become President. But that is water under the bridge.
So, what is it that sets a leader apart where even when he proposes to do what his followers either don’t understand or don’t like, they still support him and commit to his way and he doesn’t lose trust in their eyes?
The two finest examples of this in Islamic history are the Treaty of Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah. Let us see the challenges that the leaders faced in each of them.
I won’t narrate the history of this very famous treaty as it is well known. I will list the challenges that Rasoolullahﷺ faced. They were perhaps the most severe challenges that any leader could have faced, especially one who was the Messenger of Allahﷻ and so the recipient of Wahi (Revelation). He took the people with him on Umrah, naturally with the intention of performing Umrah but thanks to a series of events which obviously he could not have anticipated, he was now in the process of signing a treaty that was so one-sided as to be humiliating for the Muslims. Two of the most difficult to accept clauses were:
1. They must return to Madina without making Umrah
2. If a Muslim left Islam and went over to the Quraysh of Makkah he/she would be given refuge and need not be returned to Madina. But if a non-Muslim accepted Islam and went from Makkah to Madina, he/she must be returned to Makkah and must not be given refuge.
To add to the difficulty, Abu Jandal bin Suhayl the brother of Abdullah ibn Suhayl and son of Suhayl Ibn Amr, the orator of Quraysh had accepted Islam and consequently had been imprisoned by his father, escaped and came to Hudaybiyya having heard that Rasoolullahﷺ was camped there. His father Suahyl ibn Amr was the representative of Quraysh, negotiating the treaty. The clauses of the treaty had been agreed upon but had not been written down yet. He demanded that his son should be handed over to him to be returned to Makkah in chains and Rasoolullahﷺ agreed. He advised Abu Jandal (R) to be patient when he complained that the Quraysh would punish him for accepting Islam. The Sahaba were horrified because what was happening was directly against the custom of giving refuge to a victim and in this case to a fellow Muslim. Yet Rasoolullahﷺ was honoring the clause of a treaty even though it had not yet been signed. He was honoring his word which had been given, the writing of which was merely detail. The Sahaba were very sad and angry.
Sad about not being able to enter Makkah and make Umrah and angry at what the Quraysh were demanding. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) even went the extent of questioning Rasoolullahﷺ. Once again, I will not go into the details here as these are well known. However, I would like to say that his questioning was really the unconscious expression of the doubt in the minds of many others, if not most. It was a cry of anguish in the face of the apparently placid and submissive acceptance of injustice. Yet when all was said and done, the Sahaba stood behind Rasoolullahﷺ solidly and followed him and did as he instructed them to do. And that is the bottom-line and the question that I raise here, ‘What was it about Rasoolullahﷺ that inspired them to follow him, even when his decision was not to their liking?’
To better understand the challenge from the perspective of the followers (Sahaba) let me list some of the obvious doubts that this entire incident raises. I am not saying that the Sahaba had these doubts. Allahﷻ knows what was in their minds and hearts and that is not the subject of our discussion here. This is an objective analysis of one of the most severe tests of leadership in history which is important for us to understand. I call this the ‘final exam’, which qualified the Sahaba in the sight of Allahﷻ to lead the world and Heﷻ opened for them not only the doors of Makkah but the whole of their world. Hudaybiyya was the toughest exam because it was not a test of bravery or physical prowess, but a test of faith and trust. The Sahaba passed it with flying colors.
The doubts that the incident raises are:
1. They believed in Muhammadﷺ as the Messenger of Allahﷻ who received Revelation (Wahi). They believed that one of the forms in which Wahi was received was in a dream. Rasoolullahﷺ had seen in his dream that he was making Umrah with his companions and so, had invited them to join him to travel to Makkah to make Umrah. However, now he was agreeing not to make Umrah that year and was going to return to Madina with them without fulfilling the intention of performing Umrah.
2. They had been taught and believed that Islam was the truth. They had been taught and believed that standing up for the truth and fighting against falsehood was a sacred trust and duty. Yet here they were apparently giving in to blatant injustice.
3. They now faced the prospect of returning to Madina to the taunts of the Munafiqeen who would no doubt cast aspersions on the prophethood and veracity of Rasoolullahﷺ.
4. For Rasoolullahﷺ himself were the questions, ‘If Allahﷻ wanted him to make Umrah, why did this barrier come about? Why did Allahﷻ not open the door for him to make Umrah after directing him to do so in his dream? Why was Allahﷻ wanting him to sign such a humiliating treaty with his enemies? What ‘face’ would he have with his followers who believed in his Messengership? What about his personal credibility as the Messenger of Allahﷻ?’
Truly Hudaybiyya was a test, difficult beyond belief. That is why I call it the ‘final’ exam of the Sahaba.
Wars of Riddah
Before we discuss the reasons for the Sahaba remaining steadfast in their support for Rasoolullahﷺ let me mention another similar incident in early Muslim history which was a landmark for the future of Islam. This was the refusal of many tribes to pay Zakat, after the death of Rasoolullahﷺ. They refused on the grounds that they used to pay it to Rasoolullahﷺ who was no longer present and so Zakat was not due any longer. Abu Bakr Siddique (R) the Khalifa reminded them that Zakat was not a personal payment to Rasoolullahﷺ but was a Rukn (Pillar) of Islam about which Rasoolullahﷺ had declared that anyone who separated Salah from Zakat had left Islam. It was on this basis that Rasoolullahﷺ had refused to accept the Islam of the Banu Thaqeef of At-Ta’aif when they came to him and offered to accept Islam on condition that they be made exempt from paying Zakat. Rasoolullahﷺ refused and declared that both Salah and Zakat were Pillars of Islam and equal in importance and that leaving of either would be tantamount to leaving Islam. On this basis, Abu Bakr Siddique (R) declared war on those tribes who refused to pay Zakat.
The Sahaba were very perturbed about this as it appeared that the Khalifa Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was planning to make war on Muslims. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) asked Abu Bakr (R) how he could consider going to war against Muslims. Abu Bakr (R) said to him, ‘What has happened to you Omar, that you were very tough when you were not a Muslim but have become soft after entering Islam?’ He then reminded him about the ruling of Rasoolullahﷺ about separating Zakat from the rest of Islam and said, ‘Even if they refuse to give a single rope of a camel which is due, I will fight them.’ And that is what he did. In retrospect, it was this single unshakable stance of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) which preserved the integrity of Islam after Rasoolullahﷺ passed away. If he had not taken this firm stand, Islam would perhaps have disintegrated with people deciding to follow whatever suited them. But ask, ‘What is it that made the Sahaba support him even when they disagreed with his decision?’
In the case of Rasoolullahﷺ at Hudaybiyya, one could say that his position as being the Messenger of Allahﷻ was sacrosanct and when you believed that he was receiving Revelation, it was perhaps easier to follow without question. However, Abu Bakr (R) was not receiving Revelation. He was one among them, albeit first among equals, but an equal. Yet they obeyed him even though some or many didn’t agree with his decision, initially. Not only did they obey him, but they put their own lives on the line and enrolled in the conscript army which was the army of the time. Nobody stayed back. Nobody said, ‘I don’t agree and so I am not going to risk my life by joining the army.’ What made them do that?
I believe there were two major factors that operated in both these incidents; i.e. Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah.
1. Trust: An unshakable faith beyond question in the personal credibility of the leader. This faith was based on the character of the leader which his followers had seen throughout his life and which inspired total trust and respect in their hearts. So, while they may have disagreed with the leader in a matter, his personal credibility, his intention that he wished the best for them, his objectivity, truthfulness, commitment to the goal (Islam), impartiality, lack of selfishness, sincerity, desire only to please Allahﷻ were never in question.
2. Respect: The belief that the leader was more knowledgeable, committed and sincere than any one of them. That he understands a situation better than the follower. That his track record shows that even in the past he had been right, when he differed with his followers.
As you can see, these two factors are dynamically linked. One supports the other. And both arise out of one’s conduct. When you live by your principles, you don’t have to keep talking about them. People see them in your life and emulate them in their own. The converse is equally true which we tragically see in our modern-day leadership. Leaders who don’t walk their talk may be obeyed out of fear but are never respected and loved. There is no way that a leader can divorce his personal conduct from his stated principles and expect followers to respect and follow his lead.
Personal credibility which translates to high respect. People trust those they respect. And they don’t trust those who lose respect in their estimation. A leader’s life is public. Every statement, whether made in seriousness or jest, is public. Every action, private or public, personal or involving others, is public. And they all contribute to the overall picture of the leader that people hold in their minds. Image and personal credibility of the leader is built on his walking the talk. People listen with their eyes and don’t care what you say until they see what you do. This is the Brand of the leader. They care less about what is being said, than about who is saying it. ‘How’ also matters, but only after ‘Who’. If people don’t respect the individual, what he/she says doesn’t matter. First the who, then the how and then the what. Seems strange but that is human psychology for you. People must first trust a leader. Then they listen to how he puts across his proposal. Then they think about what he is asking them to do. If the first two, especially the first one (high personal credibility), is strong, people will even go to extraordinary lengths to follow their leaders.
In times of stress, success of the leader depends on the ability of followers to recall and remember the brand. And still obey and follow the leader and commit themselves even when they don’t fully understand why they should commit. And even when they may not agree with some of what the leader is doing. Please note that what I am referring to is not what happens after the leader has explained what he is doing and why he wants their support. I am talking about a time when the leader may not have the time, opportunity or may for reasons of confidentiality, decide on a course of action without consulting his team. Will the team still follow him and commit fully to him and his course or will they hold back, rebel and not support? That is the meaning of faith in the leadership. Like all good things, maybe easier said than done, but like flying, if you want to fly, you must be aerodynamic. There is no alternative.
On October 20, 2010, I was 55. I released a book on that day called: 20-10-2010-55 which was 55 life lessons that I learnt in my life. I have decided to share those with you (those who read the book please forgive me) and so you will get one every day until we finish them all.
Those who feel motivated to read the book itself can get it from Amazon. Those who would like to know more about me and my life should read, “It’s my Life”, which is also on Amazon (India, US & Canada). My life is worth $7 (INR 200). I am most grateful that Allahﷻgave me the life that He gave me for $7. Ajeeb!
I turned fifty-five on October, 20, 2010. That’s the title of this book and blog; 20.10.2010-55. On that day, I reflected on the lessons that I had learnt in an unusually rich, active, exciting life lived in India, Guyana, America, Saudi Arabia, and in travels in other parts of the world. I wrote this book as a tribute of thanks to all those who added value to me, taught me formally and informally, and invested in my learning. During my childhood and teens in India through the 60’s and 70’s, I spent all my vacations walking in the jungles of the Aravallies, living with my dear friend Uncle Rama. Imagine the excitement of a fifteen-year-old with a .22 rifle or a twelve-bore shotgun, walking with one Gond companion, Shivayya, all over the jungle bordering the Kadam River.
At times Shivayya and I would walk in the night to witness a Sambar mud bath and sit behind a tree, quietly watching majestic Sambar stags roll in mud and then stand up to shake off the excess; coated in an armor of mud which, when dry, protects them from biting insects. Sometimes we would hear the call of the tiger as it set out for work. I learnt to read tracks which tell the story of all those who passed that way. I learnt the meaning of smells which tell their own stories and can mean the difference between life and death. But the biggest lesson I learnt was to take life seriously while having fun and to extract every drop of learning.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I spent five years in the Amazonian rain forests of Guyana bordering the Rio Berbice. I went there when I was nineteen and lived alone in Kwakwani. During weekends, my friend Peter Ramsingh and I would take our boat on a trip fifty to sixty miles upriver and camp on the bank or on a sandbank. It was our code of honor to not take any food on these trips and live off the land from our hunting and fishing. As an emergency fall back, we would take some raw chicken guts in a plastic bag. If we didn’t manage to catch any Lukanani or to shoot any Agouti or Canje Pheasant, we would trawl the chicken guts in the Berbice and sure enough, we would get a bite – Piranha. Great eating as long as you know how to keep clear of the teeth and retrieve your hook. I would see alligator eyes shining like diamonds sprinkled on the dark waters during our night patrols to check our fishing nets. During one trip, Peter and I accidentally caught a twenty-two-foot Anaconda in our fishing net. It was so heavy that both of us couldn’t lift him clear off the ground. I met people who live thirty to forty miles up the Berbice River in houses on stilts, in small forest clearings where they grow a few vegetables, hunt and fish for their meat, and don’t come to ‘town’ for months at a time; no water except the river, no light except the sun. Sometimes it is a single family of Amerindians. Sometimes it is a couple of families who live by one another. Their children play in the forest and swim naked in the river, yet I never heard of a case of Piranha bite; never figured out that one as the river is infested with Piranha and they love to bite. These families always grow the best honey which they would sell to people like me who turned up on their doorstep, or take to town and exchange for a couple of bottles of country liquor – deadly stuff in more ways than one.
I received news in May, 2011 that my dearest friend, mentor, and boss from Kwakwani, Nick Adams, entered into Islam along with his wife and sister-in-law.
I spent ten years in the 80’s and 90’s in the rain forests of the Western Ghats in Anamallais, India and further south, planting tea, coffee, cardamom, and rubber. I spent many hours tramping up and down hills and valleys, sometimes at a height of eight to nine thousand feet on the famous Grass Hills; at other times, wending my way in sweltering heat through the thick forest on the Ghats where the sun almost never reaches the earth. One day, I escaped an angry, charging bull elephant by what could only be a miraculous divine intervention. All my tea garden workers believed that I was divinely blessed from this day on; a belief that I did nothing to dispel – who would object to being divinely blessed? On another instance, I walked up to a Red Dhole kill – they moved away and sat in a circle watching me, while I ensured that the Sambar hind that they had brought down was dead. On a forest road in the Anamallais, I once had a face-off with a huge Gaur bull who eventually decided he didn’t hate me enough to eliminate me and moved away, allowing me to move on, on my Royal Enfield motorcycle. My greatest joy was to camp on a huge rock outcrop called Manja Parai in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate where I was the big boss, sitting on a platform in a tree to watch elephants come to drink in a nearby stream. When the elephants left, the Gaur would come. Finally, when everyone had gone their way, my companion Raman and I would descend and light a fire against the bitter cold, smoke a couple of beedis, and drink hot, sweet tea and wait for the sun to rise. Gradually, the sky would lighten; the orange glow would show and then the majestic ball of fire would come up over the edge of the horizon, greeting us across an expanse of forest and tea gardens. What is the value of such a sight?
I never was good at math.
Lest you think, all play and no work – I went to one of the best schools in Hyderabad, India, where I was born and spent my childhood – The Hyderabad Public School. I believe that school is the most important institution in building character and preparing the child for manhood. No university or institution of higher learning can do for character building what a good school can do. I went to one of the best, not only because of the infrastructure, which was world class, but also because of the wonderful people who taught me. Simultaneously, I acquired a formal Islamic education (twelve years) with both book learning as well as Tarbiyya, which I continued over the years. I learnt that it is always possible to do more than conventional wisdom would have you believe if you push yourself. I also learnt that pushing yourself is great fun. In school I was passionate about horse riding; I excelled in dressage and also played polo. After completing school, I went to college and graduated with degrees in History, Political Science, and Urdu literature. I also have a post-graduation in Management from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) and a further qualification in Applied Behavioral Science.
I specialize today in Leadership Development and Family Business consulting and have written several books on these and other subjects. I have retained my interest in the wild places and those who live there. This has developed into a passion for photography and so over the past several years, I have spent many very happy hours every year in Kruger and Hluhluwi National Parks in South Africa and in other forests of the world.
Over the course of fifty-five years, of which thirty-eight have been working years, I have met thousands of people across races, nationalities, colors, political landscapes, genders, sizes, and shapes – ranging from business and political leaders walking the corridors of power (in 2008 I met the King of Saudi Arabia, His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz ibn Saud at a banquet in his palace in Mina; the Prime Minister of Guyana, His Excellency Mr. Samuel Hinds is a personal friend of thirty-five years standing), to religious scholars (Muslim, Christian, and Hindu), union leaders, anxious parents of children who have become strangers to them, heads of family business – billionaires who would give half their kingdom for peace of mind and real happiness, poor farmers and hunter gatherer tribesmen and women who have little, but are ever happy to share it with you. They have problems like the rest of us, maybe even more, but you don’t see that on their face or hear it in their voice.
I met tribal leaders in their villages, one of them comprised of four huts in the rain forest in the Western Ghats in India and broke bread with them and to their utter astonishment, played with their children. I drank milk straight from the udder of a buffalo and honey straight from the hive, with the blessings of the owners. I swam in forest rivers that have no names, rode horseback on the South American pampa and the English Moors and fished for Piranha and Arapaima in Rio Berbice. I have driven cars, SUVs before the term was invented (we called all of them ‘Jeep’), Caterpillar dump trucks, bull dozers, and boats. I rode a buffalo into a lake until it decided to dive and I floated away. Mercifully, I grabbed her tail and she towed me back to shore. I met teachers, parents, and students in South Africa, Malaysia, India, Guyana, U.K, and America and wondered at our similarities which far overshadow our differences. I have spoken to audiences ranging from a few people in a room to nine-thousand people in the great masjid of the International Islamic University in Malaysia and marveled at how easy it is to connect to people across every imaginable boundary. I was one of three million in Haj on more than one occasion and if I had a dollar for every smile I got from a stranger, I would be a rich man. I feel I am a rich man anyway because of all the experiences that life has afforded me. I have been in life threatening situations more than once, facing direct personal danger sometimes from both, two legged and four legged creatures, but I am still here. I studied many religions and philosophies and then came to Islam with my eyes wide open. Though I was born in a Muslim home, my Islam is by choice, not chance. Having seen the opposite spectrums of the economic scale – the rich living responsibly or irresponsibly, the poor living with self-respect and dignity or justifying all sorts of bad actions by reference to poverty – I have developed a strong sense of justice and compassion. I believe the two must go hand in hand. I also learned what I consider to be the two most important lessons in my life, after sharing which I will end this introduction.
The first relates to the fact that essentially we are all in control of our lives and selves and no matter how powerful or powerless we may believe we are, there is always something that we can do to make a difference.
‘I will not allow what is not in my control, to prevent me from doing what is in my control.’
The second relates to the fact that everything we do counts and defines us as human beings and becomes our legacy to the world. I ask for the courage to do what is in my control, fearing nobody but my Creator to Whom is my return.
‘All that we chose to do or chose not to do, defines brand value and character.’