“So, what is our goal? To change their
attitude, or to convince them that they need to change it themselves?”
“That is challenging, difficult, will
take sweat and tears……….do I really want to even try it?”
We are now at the root of the problem and it is: Do I want to change my own
Attitude is at the root of everything. Attitude decides whether we will succeed or fail. Whether when in difficulty, even that which seems to be life threatening, if we will survive or perish. Attitude decides if when hit by life (or by someone) we stay down or get up. And how many times we get up. And what the result of getting up every time we fall, will be. Attitude, not wealth, dictates happiness. If you don’t believe me, watch slum children leaping into pools of rainwater after the first rains. Do they look happy? Then go and watch your children, who will most likely be complaining about the rain. And ask yourself, “Who has more wealth?” I know that is a dumb question, but then to decide to remain dumb is an attitude issue. To decide to remain blind, even though we have eyes is an attitude issue. To witness a crime in progress and to decide to take a video to post on Instagram, instead of taking action to prevent the crime or to help the victim, is a matter of attitude. Cherophobia (the fear of being ‘too happy’ because you feel that if you allow yourself to feel happy, then disaster will strike), is a matter of attitude. Satisfaction, gratitude, ambition, courage, compassion are all attitudes. So also, are their opposites. And each one has an impact on our life.
Agara – A – is the first letter of the alphabet, so also God is before all
the same way, attitude comes before all situations and circumstances and
decides how they will affect us. Incidentally, another A-word; affect. Let me
tell you some stories to illustrate what I mean.
was 1987 and I was doing a course at XLRI, Jamshedpur. One evening my friends
decided to show me the sights around Jamshedpur. As we drove in the Hindustan
Ambassador car, which was provided for us, the road suddenly deteriorated. My
friend announced, “This is where Jamshedpur ends, and Bihar begins.” We
continued onwards, headed towards Dimna lake and bird sanctuary. This is a lake
made by Tata Steel and provides drinking water to Jamshedpur. On the way we
stopped at a traffic light. The road was a patchwork of potholes joined
together by bits of tarmac to prove that once upon a time when the world was
young, it had been surfaced with bitumen. As I was contemplating life and its
trials, a young boy came coasting down the slope on his bicycle a bit oblivious
to his situation and hit a pothole, bounced out of it and yelled, ‘Wah! Kya
khadda hai!’ (Wow! What a pothole!). Today I am writing this on July 13, 2019,
32 years later, but the incident is fresh in my memory. I remind myself that
nothing changed for that kid or for me. The road, the potholes, the
responsibility of the government, the use of taxes, you name it, everything
remained the same. Yet that kid decided to be happy. So, when he hit a pothole,
he appreciated the pothole instead of complaining. A matter of attitude.
my view the best thing about attitude is that it is entirely in my control. Nobody
can give it to me or take it from me or change it for me or do anything at all
with my attitude. I, and only I, can have whatever attitude I want to. So only
I, can decide if I want to be sad, glad, bad, mad or whatever. That means that
until I want to change it, nobody can help me and if I want to change it,
nobody can stop me. That is power.
1978, soon after I finished graduation with a BA in history, political science
and Urdu literature, I boarded a flight for Guyana where my father was on a
one-year assignment, with the Guyana Mining Enterprise hospital in Linden. It
was a long flight and a long story. I flew from Hyderabad to Bombay to London
to New York to Miami to Georgetown which took more than 24 hours. I flew in a SE
210 Caravelle, Boeing 707, McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and Boeing 707 once again.
I flew on Indian Airlines, British Airways, Pan Am (Pan American World
Airways), Delta and BWIA. And at the end of it all, more than 24 hours after I
left Hyderabad, I arrived literally at the other end of the world, without my
baggage. My baggage apparently had other travel plans and I have no idea which
country it was destined for. But for me that meant that not only did I get to
lose all my worldly possessions but also the proof of my education, my degree
certificate, which I had kept in my checked-in baggage for safety.
I should have been devastated. I wasn’t. It took
me about ten minutes to come to terms with the fact that I was walking with all
my worldly assets, the shirt on my back. I found this was a very liberating
idea. In Guyana I got a job, lived and worked in a small mining town in the
middle of the rainforest. My experience of the five years that I spent there
was far from negative. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding periods
of my life during which I made lifelong friendships, had many unique experiences,
and learnt a huge amount about human relations and conflict management which
has stood me in good stead throughout my career, now many decades later. I will
talk about those days in context in the articles and podcasts that will come
later but want to say that all this happened because of the way I approached
For one thing, I didn’t see it as a ‘challenge =
difficulty’, at all. I saw it as the possibility to have great fun and great
learning, each day filled with new possibilities. I was in a new country,
totally new (alien!!) culture, food, climate, language, working with people who
were completely different from me in every way, living in a part of the world
that I had never been in and which was as different from my life in Hyderabad as
to make it seem like I was on another planet. Yet it turned out to be one of
the best periods of my life which I recall very fondly today, more than forty
years later. The reason was attitude.
Attitude therefore is how you choose to see what
you are faced with. You can choose to appreciate the good in it and enjoy it
and to see the difficulties as you look at weights in the gym; something that
is tough to lift but can only benefit you if you do. Who makes that choice?
Back home in India, I worked in the plantation
industry for ten years, managing tea, and rubber plantations with coffee,
cardamom, coconut and vanilla thrown in, before striking out into the field of
leadership consulting. During my last three years in the company, I was posted
as Manager of the company’s operations in Kanyakumari District in Tamilnadu.
That comprised of two rubber estates, two factories and a higher secondary
school. The challenge there was the labor force, which was highly militant,
unionized, communist union (CITU – Marxist) and a history of tension between
the management and union. To spice up my life I had an immediate task of
introducing Controlled Upward Tapping (CUT) in rubber. This involved the
tappers using special tapping knives to tap upwards instead of the normal
downward tap. This put a strain on their shoulders and initially it could be
uncomfortable, even painful, until they got used to it. The standard response
to this was to refuse to do it. That led to tensions and some ugly situations
before I got there, including an Assistant Manager having been grievously
assaulted. My challenge was to get the workers to accept this method of
tapping, which meant that I had to convert their dislike and resistance to
liking. To change their attitude from resistance to acceptance.
I spoke to another company in Kerala who were
using this technique and had good results. I requested their management to
allow me to send my tappers to visit them to see their tapping, meet their
tappers and talk to them about the technique. I wanted them to do this freely
without any supervision, so I didn’t go with them. I sent them in a bus and
arranged for them to have a nice sumptuous meal with their hosts and to be
given CUT knives as a take-away gift (for which we paid). I told them to go and
see the work, ask any questions that they wanted to ask their compatriots and
satisfy themselves that this method was a good method for them to earn more
income as well as something which would not be difficult to do after they had
gotten used to the new angle of tapping. All this was treated with suspicion to
begin with, given the history of management labor relations, but I expected
that and didn’t react to it. However, the prospect of a company paid holiday
was tempting and unique and so they went. After that, as they say, the rest is
history. They returned enthusiastic about trying out the new technique and when
they saw that as promised, their yield was better resulting in better earning,
there was nothing more for me to do.
What I had been able to do was to get them tuned
into the channel that everyone listens to; WiiFM (What’s in it For Me). That is
the key to attitude change. Get people to see what’s in the change for them.
Help them to see how they will benefit. Naturally they must really benefit. It
is not a PR exercise. If there is really no benefit, then you will lose
credibility big time if you try to sell it. But it happens often that people
don’t see the benefit until you can show it to them. Once they see how they
will gain by changing their attitude, it happens easily enough. The challenge
is for us to show it to them.
What is essential for the one wanting to bring
about attitude change is to put himself into the shoes of the other and see their
world through their eyes. I had a very interesting experience in this context.
I was doing a series of coaching skills workshops for senior management at
ICRISAT in Hyderabad. This required helping people understand the fact that you
can never coach anyone effectively if you don’t see their world through their
eyes. In other words, you need to put yourself in their shoes. To illustrate
this, I took off my shoes and said to the Deputy Director General, the most
senior manager who was sitting right in front, “Please get into my shoes.”
He got up very reluctantly and started to take his
shoes off. I stopped him when he had taken one shoe off. I asked him, “What are
He looked surprised and replied rather testily,
“Taking off my shoes.”
I asked, “Why?”
He looked really exasperated and said, “How else
can I get into your shoes?” Then it suddenly dawned on him and he almost
yelled, “Wah! What an insight!! I can never get into your shoes until I take my
own shoes off. Wah! Sahab Wah!”
It is often as simple as that. The lesson is
simple but very powerful.
If we want to change people’s attitudes, we need
to first change our own. We must own up that we need to see their world as they
see and feel it. We must empathize and understand. Then we need to show them
how they will benefit from the change. Only then will it happen.
In terms of formal leadership roles, one of the
biggest challenges of the commanding officer is to influence positively the
attitude of those under his/her command. Many try to use authority. All that
they get is outward compliance. Just because someone answers, “Yessah!” with a
salute doesn’t mean that he/she truly accepts what you ordered them to do or
that they will do it when they are not supervised. We are all aware of the
theory, “It is the arm that salutes, not the heart.” That is why I say, “Values
can’t be legislated (commanded). They must be inculcated.” And that is the
reason attitude is critical. Attitude is what you do because of who you are.
Not because of your job, rank or training but because of the truth of your
being. That is why attitude inspires far more than any passionate speech or any
order from on-high. People don’t care what you say, until they see what you do.
Attitude is what Dr. Kafeel of Gorakhpur had, when
though he was not even on duty, he decided to take charge when he was informed
that the government hospital where he worked had run out of oxygen and the
lives of children who needed oxygen, were at stake. He spent his own funds to
buy oxygen and managed to save the lives of over 200 of them. In organizational
life, we have many stories to tell of people who decided to take ownership of
the situation and in the absence of orders and sometimes even in contravention
of them, they did the right thing. Many paid a price for it, but their stand
inspires us to this day. The thing to remember is that even if they had succumbed
to pressure, they would have paid a price. A price which in real terms, would
have been far higher. There is no such thing as a free choice. Every choice has
a price tag. We are free to choose between price tags. That is the reason why
we need to record and preserve such stories, because they are real, involve
real people like us and are beacons of guidance and proof of concept that IT
CAN BE DONE.
the attitudes that are critical for us to have? They are three.
Courage: Courage is the first. Courage is the willingness to stand up against
opposing danger or force. The greater the opposing force, greater the courage
needed. Courage is physical but even more importantly it is moral. Moral
courage comes before physical courage and is often its motive force. Moral courage
is called upon far more often than physical courage in our lives because the
pressure on us is from those who have higher authority, direct or indirect.
They don’t necessarily threaten our life or safety, but they threaten our
careers. Yet we must have the courage to stand up to their threats, open or
But stand up on what basis? On the basis of truth.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “When the truth must be spoken, silence is culpable.”
Truth: Truth is the unshakable belief that truth comes first and over and above anyone else. The duty of every citizen is to uphold the truth in his/her own life. For this, we are accountable and answerable to society. And though society may not have the tools and structures to demand this accountability in a formal manner, it does enforce it very powerfully by giving or withholding respect and moral authority. Moral authority is the reward for moral courage. Without moral authority you may get rank, but you will never have power. Rank is bestowed. Power is earned. The Establishment bestows rank. People give you power. Without power, the badge of rank is costume jewelry.
Compassion: The ability to see
yourself in the suffering of others. In the words ascribed to Benjamin
Earl of Beaconsfield, who twice served as Prime Minister of the
United Kingdom, “There but
for the Grace of God, goes Disraeli.” He reportedly said that on looking at a
homeless man in rags. It is not known what he did thereafter, but the statement
shows that he saw himself, at least momentarily, in the other less fortunate
man. Compassion is not only to see but to do something about that, to alleviate
the suffering, lift the oppression and deliver the justice being denied to the
other. Compassion, above anything else, differentiates us as humans in the best
possible terms. Compassion means that we stand against oppression even when it
doesn’t affect us personally. Compassion means that we go out of our way, take
the pain and the trouble and if necessary, pay the price to fight for the
rights of others. Compassion is a fundamental value, a core strength and a key
resource, without which we simply can’t function effectively and honorably.
Compassion is the result of courage and commitment to the truth. Compassion
wins hearts, inspires cooperation, builds a reputation, enhances influence and
is the best protection.
This is the value of these three, interlinked
attitudes: courage based on truth, tempered with compassion. Truth gives
courage its backbone and compassion ensures that it is applied in a way that is
caring, respectful and kind.
Finally, I must reiterate that attitudes can’t be
legislated. They must be inculcated. We can’t simply order people, “You must be
courageous. You must be truthful. You must be compassionate.” We must show them
how, by demonstrating courage, truthfulness and compassion ourselves in our
everyday actions. We must remember that people listen with their eyes. They
don’t care what we say, until they see what we do.
did things get so bad?” I am sure you must have heard, asked or thought about
this yourself. So have I. Many times, over the years whenever I saw a
badly-behaved child being fed with the help of an iPad, a spaced-out teenager
who seems lost in his electronic world where Facebook friends are more real to
her than real human ones or when I read reports of rapes and murders being
filmed on smart phones by stupid people. And my instant reaction is, “It was
not like this 40 years ago. What went wrong?” And there would rest the case;
until the next episode. This is 2019 and so when I say, ‘40 years’ we are
talking about two generations; that is the 1980’s. It is not to say that
everything was hunky-dory until 1980 and suddenly in 1981 it all collapsed. But
it is a live demo of the truth of the ‘Boiled Frog Syndrome’.
uninitiated, this has nothing to do with cuisine, but with gradual social
change which suddenly becomes starkly visible, having been unperceived for a
long time before that. The parable is that if you put a frog into a pot of hot
water, it will jump out. But if you put the frog into a pot of water at room
temperature and allow it to get comfortable in it; then you light a fire under
the pot and gradually heat the water, the frog doesn’t register that the water
is getting hotter. It continues to feel comfortable in the water which is
getting hotter and hotter until it reaches a point when it does register that
things are not the same but by then it is too late, and the frog gets boiled.
That is what happens to people and to societies. That is what I believe has
happened to us in India.
Let me do
a flashback to the time that I was growing up, which was in the 60’s and 70’s.
We (me Muslim) lived in a multi-religious society, as we do now, but with a big
difference. Nobody had TV’s or smart phones (we didn’t even have stupid
phones), so our social life was with our friends. We played football and
cricket; yes, really! I mean in the maidan (open field) near our house. We went
to their homes and they came to ours. We participated in their festivals; not
the religious ceremonies, but the fun and games, eats and sweets. And they did
the same with ours. We knew them and their culture and religion, respected it,
understood their boundaries and adhered to them, took an interest in their
culture and they did the same with ours. We spoke about all this because there
was no football or cricket to speak of
and as far as I can recall, (cricket was a 5-day Test Match – a test of
patience for everyone), politics was a given (Panditji was alive after all) and
so there was hardly any discussion about that. We needed people and they needed
us. So, we appreciated each other.
in joint families, referred to our elders by our relationship with them or an honorific
in keeping with their age. So, it was Dadaji, Amma, Baba, Mataji, Dadiji,
Chachi, Chacha and so on. Hardly anyone was ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’. There were some
but not too many. It was the job of all elders to discipline us, teach us, tell
us stories, guide us in our religious or cultural norms, customs and practices
and when they were doing that, if any of our friends was around, they would get
the benefit of this teaching, no matter which religion they came from. They
listened with respect and so did we. Our culture was distinct from that of
others, but I don’t remember anyone in my family ever referring to the culture
of others in any even remotely derogatory term. I don’t believe that my family
or elders were unique. They were ordinary people of the time. We learnt our
cultural norms, manners, taboos, customs and practices from our environment and
those around us and since we lived in joint families, there were plenty of
those. It didn’t matter that Dad was away at work, Mom was always home and even
if she went anywhere, one or both grandparents, an uncle or aunt or two were
always around to ensure that we ate, slept, were safe, studied, went out and
played and when it was time, prayed. Mom and Dad didn’t need to do these things
ate out because it was considered uncultured to eat in a restaurant. People
asked you, ‘Don’t you have a home?’ If you took a friend out to a restaurant it
meant that he was not close to you or that you didn’t really respect him.
Otherwise you would have brought him home. It was normal to eat at each other’s
homes, no matter that in some cases the food laws are very different and rigid.
But Brahmins, Marwaris, Kayasth and Reddy friends all ate regularly at our place.
When those we knew to be particular about their food laws were coming, strictly
vegetarian food would be cooked. Those that ate meat at our house did that because
they wished to. Nobody forced of even suggested it to them. Once again, this
was not unique. This was the norm. I recall dropping in at the home of my good
friend from school, Gurcharan Singh. I said, “Sat Sri Akal” to his mother
(Mummy), Dad (Dadji), Grandmother (Mataji) and “Hi” to his sister and brothers
and him. They all said, “Come and eat”, as they were having lunch. His mother
said, with a big smile on her face, “Aaloo paratha bana hai. Tujhe pasand hai
na!” because she knew how much I loved it. As I sat down, Guru’s father pointed
to a covered dish and said, “Usay utthay rakh do.” (Put that there; signing to
the sideboard); meaning, take that dish away from the table. Guru jokingly
said, “Dadji koi problem nahin hai. Yawar yahan kha lega.” His father was
distinctly not amused. He said, “Khana hai tho kahin aur ja kar khaye. Ithey
nahin.” (If he wants to eat, let him go and eat somewhere else. Not here.) What
they were talking about was pork vindaloo. I would not have eaten it anyway,
but for them it was not a joking matter. We respected each other’s traditions
and unless someone volunteered to break his own tradition, it was not broken
for him. Some Muslims went to their Hindu and Christian friends to drink
alcohol, but nobody forced them to do it. If they chose to do it, that was
their choice, just as it was the choice of vegetarian Hindus to eat meat in
their Muslim friend’s homes, if they wished. Needless to say, many Hindus are
not vegetarian and eat meat and fish.
were a very big thing. You never addressed an elder by name. Or even as Mr.
So-and-so. You either called him Uncle So-and-so or just Uncle. Same thing for
the Aunties. If a boy whistled at a girl, anyone older around would simply
thrash him right then and there. You asked permission, said ‘please’ and ‘thank
you’. The role models you looked up to or who were mentioned to you were people
who were known for their honesty, integrity, hard work, compassion; always for
their values. What people owned was not the subject of discussion firstly
because most people owned similar things, drove similar cars (if they drove a
car at all) and lived in similar houses. The differences were not major and it
was considered crass and highly uncivilized to mention money or the price of
anything. If someone asked you how you were, you replied, “Very well
Uncle/Aunty. Thank you.” You didn’t say, “I’m good”, because that is first of
all, not the right answer because the person was not asking about your moral
condition but your physical well-being and secondly because we thought it was
their job to tell us if we were good or bad. Not ours to announce.
in short supply though we never wanted for anything. We wore each other’s
handed down clothes. We wore shoes until they became holey. Our clothes were
hand-made to measure because that was the cheapest option. Readymade clothes
were expensive and jeans you only saw in pictures. Pocket money was unheard of.
You got money for the bus fare to school and that was it. Whatever else you
needed had to have a reason behind it, and “I want it” was not a reason. We
lived in bungalows on large plots of land because our parents had inherited
them from their parents. We didn’t go on holidays and looked very enviously at
those very few who went to Ooty for two weeks every summer so that they could
return to Hyderabad’s heat and appreciate it better. But then, at that time you
wore a sweater from November to February and the swimming pool (Public Swimming
Pool in Fateh Maidan – does it even exist anymore – where Jeelani Pairak was
the coach) only opened its doors in the middle of March because it was too cold
to swim before that.
were all of four career choices, medicine, engineering (mechanical or civil),
Civil Service or Army. You picked one or if you didn’t, it was thrust upon you
for all kinds of reasons out of your control and then you studied for the
exams. When you got 80% you got presents and gave a party. If you got 90%
people thought that you had cheated. Life was simple, uncomplicated and moved
on at its own pace.
the 80’s. TV came on the scene with its soaps, serials and news. The world
suddenly opened. Education changed. Multiple disciplines became available to
study leading to hitherto unheard-of career options. The Middle East opened up
for jobs, so did America and Canada. Young people left to make their fortunes.
In some cases, the wives and children remained behind. In most other cases, it
was only the elderly parents who saw off their children at the airport to
return to empty houses and loneliness. All in the name of money. Thanks to
repatriation of funds and the effect of the TV, suddenly money was easy and
material things, appliances, clothes, cars, motorcycles, all became affordable.
Rapidly these became not only nice to have but grounds for competition with
neighbors, friends and strangers. Suddenly we discovered that our neighbor’s
name was Jones and we had to compete with them (Keeping up with the Joneses).
sound like ancient history today in 2019 going on the magic number 2020. What
do we have today? Hatred. We hate each other and that sells, that gets you
elected, that gets you followers, it is chic, it is fashionable, and it works. It
is most preferable to hate Muslims, but anyone else will also do, if there are
no Muslims around. As long as you hate. That is the only thing that counts. So,
our world has shrunk. We meet people like ourselves, who talk like we do, eat what
we eat, like what we like and dislike what we dislike. We hate the same people and
in each other’s rhetoric, we find solace.
We live in our echo chamber and that has become our world. There are those
among us who were born in this echo chamber. They don’t know anything else. But
there are those who were born and lived in a world that was very different from
this one. A world where there were no echo chambers, like there were no mobile
phones, laptops, social media and even television. A world that was real. Today
in our echo chamber, we sometimes ask ourselves this question, “What happened
to that world?” Then we correct ourselves and ask, “What did we do to it?”
1984. The second and last formal employment
of my career was in the tea plantations in the Anamallai Hills in Coimbatore
District of Tamilnadu. I worked there for seven years, one of the most
enjoyable and instructive periods of my life. Fires and estates are companions.
Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always
bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that
regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. A forest fire is
easy to start. One cigarette butt is enough. But if it catches, then it can’t
be put out until there’s nothing left to burn. In the end, all that is left is
ash. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire
boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and
leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be
contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create
small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put
out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for
wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for me to watch animals
as they came down to drink.
One day late in the afternoon someone came running
to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that
a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations, emergencies
were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed, and
they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could
go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.
As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him
on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the
place, I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about
thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I
marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The
idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all
inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would
simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was
burnt, we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously
cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed
by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not
jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat
it to death. There was no water available where we were, otherwise, we would
have also wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure. The story didn’t
end here but for this article, this is enough.
The whole logic of fighting forest fires is about
preventing them from starting. And if they do start, then trying to prevent
them from growing. If this is not done, then once a fire grows beyond a certain
size, nothing can put it out until everything that can burn has been burnt. The
fire will die only when everyone and everything is dead. And all that is left
Today, as I reflect on global politics as well as
its local reflection in my country, I am reminded of forest fires and my own
experience of fighting one in the Anamallais. It appears that none of the
leaders either on the global stage or the even more critical local ones, has
ever seen or fought a forest fire. That is why they so blithely ignite and
stoke the fires of hatred. Racial hatred, communal hatred and religious hatred.
They know not what they do but regardless, we, every single one of us, will
burn if we allow this to go on unchallenged and unanswered. Fire can’t be
fought with fire. It must be fought with something that is cool and which is not
inflammable. So also, hatred can’t be fought with hatred, but with love. Loving
someone who hates you is not easy. It seems impossible. But the alternative is
to burn in the same fire.
In human relations terms, ignorance is
combustible. It is the substance that is used to ignite the fire of hatred and
to stoke it by demonizing the object of hate. The real purpose is to sow
discord and terror, so that we are all reduced to the same level, joined only
in our fear of one another rooted in ignorance. Then we become malleable and
controllable through fear. This is done by first focusing on the differences in
our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. In
a society like ours which is based on caste differences that discriminate
against other people based on their ethnicity (race), to get people to hate
someone for something as ridiculous as what they eat, drink, wear or worship is
very easy. We already live in a society where we are taught that some of us are
superior to others for no fault of ours or theirs. It is just that we were born
into this or that caste and so that not only makes us superior, but it means
that we get to look down on others and consider them to be dirty, sub-human,
unworthy of associating with and to always be treated with contempt. Since this
entire edifice is built on an accident of birth, it means that it is permanent
and there is nothing that anyone can do to change that. That leads to the
logical progression of despising and hating the person and the entire group
that he/she belongs to, because that makes me feel superior and good, once
again free of cost.
continue to feel good, all I need to do is to perpetuate this lie from generation
to generation and ensure that the hatred and contempt stays alive. For this
there are some requirements; deny anything good that the target population may
have done, no matter how clear and substantial the evidence. Mock and disparage
their identity, beliefs, culture and customs and demonize them by interpreting
them in negative ways. Re-write history in a way that removes all evidence of
their contribution to the nation and world and replace that with cherry-picked or
manufactured stories of their ‘sins’. Pick a time period that is ancient enough
to ensure that nobody from the time is alive to defend themselves and do all
this so aggressively that those who are alive today, are intimidated enough to
remain silent and watch their heritage being trashed. The idea is to eventually
have a situation where even the memory of the contributions of those people is
lost and all sense of self-esteem is taken from them. It is an age-old tactic,
the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works.
again, what is the solution? For a solution we must find and implement if we
are not all to be consumed in the forest fire that we lighted or allowed to be
lighted while we watched. The first part of the solution is to reject every
ideology that teaches that you are either superior or inferior because of the
accident of birth. All such ideologies of being the ‘chosen of god’, are an
insult to humanity and God. All such ideologies are false, dangerous and
destructive and must be trashed. For the record as far as my own religion, Islam
is concerned, let me quote from the sermon of the Prophet Muhammad(S) during
his last Hajj where he said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has
no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an
Arab. A white (person) has no superiority over a black, nor does a black
(person) have any superiority over a white; except by piety and good action.” Now that is clear enough and needs no
elaboration. We are all equal in our humanity and the only measure of goodness
is the goodness we spread around us.
part of the solution is to give names and faces to the labels that we are
confronted with. Labels seeking to create the ‘Other’ in our minds. Labels that
if we don’t question and see them for what they are, make it possible for us to
reject others. Labels are distant, disembodied and impersonal. That makes it
possible to hate those to whom they apply. Names are known and personal; faces
are recognizable. They make us stop to consider what we think, say or do about
those people. Let me illustrate with my own example, how a name changes the
complexion of a label.
I am Muslim.
But when I hear the label ‘Agnostic/Atheist’, I see Aunty Mohini and Uncle
Rama’s faces. The two people who were my mentors in childhood and youth and
role models, lifelong. They enabled me to discover myself and opened my heart
and mind to appreciate others. When I hear the label Sikh, I see the faces of
Gurcharan, Gurveen Kaur, Anup and Sandy. When I hear the label Hindu, I see the
faces of AMM Arunachalam, Renuka & Aditya Mishra, Purba & Sanjoy Sanyal,
Nikoo Rawlley, Arun Menon and Gudducha (Jaikant Chaturvedi). When I hear the label
Christian, I see the faces of Berty & Jenny Suares, Thambi Kurien, Ranjan
Solomon, Norman & Lorraine Wood. When I hear the label Buddhist, I see the
faces of Rose, Ivo and Alvito Baretto. When I hear the label Jew, I see the
faces of Kathy, Dennis Goodman, David and Jeffrey Solomon. When I hear the
label Christian Missionary, I see the faces of David and Miriam Ramse and
Thurston Riehl. When I hear the label Parsi, I see the faces of Jehangir
Ghadiali, Naushi and Mehru Tarapore. When I think of communal riots, I think of
Uncle Raman Kumar who came with a police escort through the curfew to give us
food grains. I think of Norman Lindie in Guyana who shielded me with his own
body from a man who had come to attack me with a knife. I think of Peter
Ramsingh, who was my constant companion in our innumerable camping trips through
the rain forests, up and down the Berbice River. These are by no means the only
people I know under these ‘categories’. There are many, many more. This is only
to make my point that when you have a face to a label, it becomes personal. With
each of them, I have many pleasant memories associated. Of happy times, helping
one another, just being with one another and enjoying each other’s company and
difference. So, deal with people, not labels.
of becoming personal is that I have a frame of reference when I hear or read something
hateful about the ‘category’ which in my mind and life experience is
represented by a name and face of a friend. I find it impossible to hate
anyone, but even if this were not the case, I would have cause to stop and reflect,
if I have a frame of reference against which to compare what I am being asked
to believe. Without that and given the unique human tendency to believe the negative
more easily than the positive, rumor becomes real and the lie becomes the
truth. Today the problem is that thanks to our highly urbanized and apparently
self-sufficient (but really isolationist) way of life, we manage to live in the
same apartment building for decades without even knowing the name of our neighbor,
let alone anything more. Our civic spaces are disappearing. Hence civilized interaction and dialogue. Even
schools are ‘segregated’. Not officially but children don’t seem to have
friends, except among their own kind. Racist language is rampant and normal.
Discrimination seems to be the order of the day. Even the question of a child going
to the home of a friend, not from his/her religion or ethnicity, to spend an overnight
or weekend with their family, doesn’t arise. Our conversation mentions other people,
their religion and culture, but always in disparaging words. Never with respect
and appreciation. Our world view has become totally color blind – black and
white. We don’t even see the racist overtone in the term, Black & White. We
have lost our frame of reference. We are blind, waiting to be led down the road
of someone else’s choosing.
change. This is the fire-break that we must build. The essential fire
prevention strategy if we want to protect ourselves from annihilation. We must
open our eyes and ears, homes and hearts, to others. We must stop ‘Othering’ each
other. We must learn to observe with respect and without being judgmental. We
must learn to appreciate difference and not reduce all difference to good (like
me) and bad (different from me). It is variety that adds color to the scenery.
Variety is another name for difference. We must consciously examine the
assumptions that we have become used to and treat as ‘The Truth’. We must face
the fact that they are baseless assumptions, rooted in bigotry. As Reza Aslan put
it very aptly, ‘Religion doesn’t make people bigots. People are bigots and
they use religion to justify their ideology.’ The question each one of us
needs to ask is, ‘Am I a bigot?’ I can imagine that in today’s world, the answer
may well be, ‘Yes’, in all cases with a difference only in degree. As a starting
point, I would say that it is enough to ask this question and then ask another
one, even more painful. ‘Am I willing to do anything to change this?’ That is
when we can start thinking of what we must do.
must we do?
conversations. At home, in the workplace, especially in our schools and in
public. It is ‘domestic legends’ which shape our worldview from a very early
age. We need to reflect on how we were conditioned and become conscious of how
we are conditioning our children. Most conditioning is unconscious and extremely
powerful and very difficult to undo, unless we make a serious effort. Monitoring
conversations will give us diagnostic evidence of the degree of change we need
to make. It is important to do this objectively with a no-praise-no-blame
mindset. The idea is to see how serious the terminal disease which afflicts us is
and see what we need to do, to cure it. For terminal it is. Hatred is fire. All
fires burn and the result is always ash.
need to create civic spaces to meet in and practice being civilized. We need to
develop the skills to speak about each other, our beliefs, culture, customs and
traditions with respect. We must visit each other, participate in each other’s
lives and do it with respect and without being judgmental. We must ask
questions, respectfully and strongly oppose all mockery of people different
from us, even if and especially when it is done in the name of ‘humor’.
Laughing at someone is not humorous. Reject outright anyone who preaches hatred
or mocks others; whether that is your priest or preacher, teacher or political
leader, uncle or mother. We need to become open-minded enough to try to
understand the reason why other people do things differently from us and not
only accept that but appreciate it as another way of life which has an equal right
to exist. We must deal with the fear that if we do this, we will need to ‘convert’
to their way. We won’t. What will happen though is that our minds and hearts will
expand, which is a very good thing for all minds and hearts. Even ours. We will
become more understanding, accepting, respectful and impervious to manipulation
by those who wish to fill our hearts with hatred for others, so that we become
tools in their hands to achieve their own ends.
It was a
very hot day in May, 1991. Very dry, at the peak of summer with the monsoon
another month away. I was driving through Thirunelveli District on my way back
from Madurai where I had gone to attend a Labour Court hearing. These were the
days before car air-conditioning in India, so the car was a moving oven.
Suddenly the moving oven stopped moving. A tyre was punctured. My driver
Santiago pulled over to the side. I got out of the car as it was simply too hot
to sit inside. Santiago didn’t need any help, he said, so I looked around. I
saw that we had stopped by some fields which in the monsoon would be planted
with rice, but which at this time were simply baked, dry clay fractured into
pieces according to whatever natural law was at work. There was not a blade of
grass or anything green in sight. Except that is, for two small Neem trees,
which had been planted by the roadside. Beside the trees, with its back to them
and facing the field was a mud hut. It must have been about twenty feet long
and had a grass thatch roof. Between the trees, which were at either end of the
hut, the ground had been swept clean and sprinkled with sand. Under each tree,
in the scant shade was a stone bench. It was really a stone fence post laid
flat on two short raisers about two feet in height. I was intrigued to say the
least about how this whole thing was obviously planned and prepared. Who would
bother to make this seating arrangement and why?
I sat on
one of the benches to see what would happen. In a little while a young boy came
out of the hut with a brass water pot and a steel tumbler and poured me a
tumbler full of tepid water. I had many thoughts about the origin of the water
and its hygiene but didn’t want to interfere with whatever was at work here. So,
I accepted the water and drank it. The boy went to Santiago and poured some water
for him also. Then he set the pot down and sat with Santiago to provide him
with moral support in changing the tyre of the car. A couple of minutes later,
his mother called him. He took his pot and departed, only to emerge with two
glass tumblers of tea. His mother came out as he finished giving the tea to me
and Santiago, with a plate of Murku – the twisted savory snack that is very
popular all over Tamilnadu and South India. I thanked her and took one, thinking
all the time that the mystery had been solved. We had been fortunate enough to
break down near a tea-shop and so we were now being served.
finished our tea and the tyre was changed. I got up and asked the boy how much
money I owed them for the tea and snack. He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Onnum
illayingay.’ (Nothing, Sir.) He used the respectful form of address which given
the difference in our ages, our mutual social positions and the culture of Thirunelveli
was natural. I thanked him but told him to ask his mother. He went into the hut
and the lady came out, her head covered with the tail of her sari (pallu) and said,
‘This is not a shop Sir. Your car broke down, so I thought that maybe you would
like a cup of tea and made it for you. That is all. There is nothing to pay.
You are our guest.’ I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing in my
experience to handle this, except unless I went back almost 30 years earlier to
my time with Gond tribals in Adilabad, where I also encountered such generosity
of spirit from people who had nothing. In this case, it was Diwali next day. So,
I took out Rs. 100 and folded the note and put it in the pocket of the youngster
and said, ‘This is for Diwali sweets for you.’ His mother tried to object but I
said to her, ‘I am like his elder brother. Please allow me to give him a gift
for Diwali.’ She smiled and nodded. And we left. This happened in 1991. This is
2019. The memory is alive.
and sophistication seem to build walls and teach us to despise one another. These
people were among the poorest in the world, deprived, discriminated against, so-called
lower caste. Yet their hearts were full of compassion, generosity and
abundance. What is the secret? It is to see another human being as a human
being. Shorn of our titles and labels. Just another human being. This is what
we need to learn and teach. This is the secret of putting out fires and of
survival. This is our lifeline.
My mind is numb, my heart
is heavy, the tears have dried,
Yet the day dawns and life
must be lived,
Actions, reactions, a vicious
cycle that must be broken.
As I sit down to write this, my biggest struggle is with myself, ‘Should I write this or not? What use is it? Surely the next planner or executor of the next atrocity is hardly going to ask – Let me see what Yawar Baig has to say before I do this. So why write?’ It is easier to simply do nothing. Withdraw into my shell and hope that one day what happened in Sri Lanka yesterday, doesn’t happen to my own loved ones. How then did I break out of this stupor of grief? By reminding myself of one thing: Those who were killed in Sri Lanka were my dear ones, because anyone who is killed because of his/her religion, race or nationality is my dear one. So, I will speak. I will raise my voice. And I will do it, even if I am alone. Especially if I am alone.
my view the real purpose behind these actions is not the elimination of any
population. That in today’s world is literally impossible. The real purpose is
to sow discord and hatred, so that we are all reduced to the same level as the
perpetrators of these crimes. Then we become malleable and controllable and are
controlled through fear. Fear of our own neighbors, brothers and sisters, fear
of our own family members in the global family of humans. This is done by first
focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences
are things to hate. That leads to the logical conclusion of hating the person
and the entire group that he/she belongs to. It is an age-old tactic, the only
thing remarkable about which is that it still works. This is what was used against
the Jewish people for centuries in Europe and Russia which led to their ghettoizing
and eventually to Hitler’s infamous Final Solution, which educated, moral and
(presumably) kind people, watched in silence. Today Muslims seem to be in that
boat. It is salutary to note that Hitler’s gas chambers were built by highly
educated engineers and scientists. So, for those who think that large scale
violence amounting to genocide is something that is left to Attila the Hun, it
may be shocking to see that education as we know it is not the solution to our
problem. Because our problems are moral and ethical. Problems of our humanity.
Not problems of not knowing enough math and science. There are lessons in history
and one of the most powerful ones lies in the Jewish Holocaust. It is essential
to learn the lessons because nations that don’t learn from history are
condemned to repeat it.
I mentioned earlier, the main purpose of hate attacks is to cause chaos and
disruption of society and turn one person against another. This creates a smoke
screen which hides real issues. When people are immersed in grief and anger and
are looking to hit back, they are not thinking clearly and all they need is a
target. That is provided by implying that anyone from the community, religion,
ethnicity, race or nationality of the criminal is like him and so can be made a
victim in ‘retaliation’. That allows people to vent their anger on innocent people,
creates an atmosphere of terror and buys time for those who want in reality to
draw the curtains over their own faults and deficiencies i.e. the failure of
leadership to solve people’s real problems of hunger, unemployment, lack of access
to public health and education, lack of clean drinking water and housing. The
issues vary from nation to nation, but it is always a mix of these. Don’t solve
real problems, divert people’s attention to hating others, allow them to vent
their anger on those who are helpless, and you buy some more time. Those who should
really be held to account, voted out, removed from leadership and made to pay,
are let off free to plan the next episode in this macabre horror drama called ‘Life
in the Modern World’.
all this will happen, only if we allow it to happen. That is the key and the
reason we must ask ourselves, “Do I want this cycle to continue?”
that this is a no-brainer, what is the solution? Let me tell you about a unique
experience I had just two days ago, on Saturday, April 20, 2019. I was invited
to a Passover Seder dinner by some very dear Jewish friends. This was the first
time that I was going to a Passover Seder and so I was very interested in what I
would see and experience. To accommodate my inability to participate in a meal
during which wine would be served, in a completely unprecedented and totally gracious
gesture (very pleasant surprise for me), this family made the meal completely alcohol
free and drank pomegranate juice instead of wine. This they did despite the fact
that drinking four cups of wine is a part of the Passover Seder ritual. What
amazed me even more was that the Rabbi who led the proceedings, also accepted
this accommodation. Truly a most gracious gesture which left me feeling so very
valued and appreciated.
Passover Seder is about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, which is a story
that as a Muslim, I grew up with. The story of Musa (Moses) and how he liberated
the Jews from the slavery of Pharaoh, is familiar to every Muslim child. It is one
of the major stories in the Qur’an as Musa (Moses) is one of the major prophets
of Islam, believing in whom is a part of our creed. But what was new to me was
the whole Seder meal and what is read during it. The overall theme of the readings
was thankfulness. Thankfulness for all the bounties of God that He gave the Jews
and of course all of us. What struck me the most was the song of fifteen
stanzas each line of which ends with the word, Dayenu (meaning ‘it would have
been enough’), but He gave more. This struck me because this is precisely the
Muslim understanding of God (Allahﷻ)
and His Grace, Mercy and Generosity, that He gives without counting. The overall
and overwhelming sense that I came away with that night was that of belonging,
not of difference. Strange thing perhaps to hear from a Muslim talking about a Jewish
household and ceremony in today’s times. But that is how I felt, the warm glow
of which remains with me.
is this important and why am I mentioning this here?
is because in this lies the seed of the solution to hatred. Hatred comes from
not knowing about each other, which leads to the situation among most people of
being able to believe the worst about them. This is the way stereotypes are
formed and strengthened until they become ‘THE TRUTH’, to be believed unquestioningly.
On the other hand, when we take the time to learn about each other, we are often
faced with some startling facts, which lead us to question our blind beliefs and
stereotypes and hopefully allow us to change our stances. I recall my childhood
where I grew up among Marwari Hindus as neighbors and went initially to a
Christian (Anglican) Missionary school and began my day singing the Lord’s Prayer
in the Chapel. I come from a family of practicing Muslims and so my own
religion was always familiar. As a result of this eclectic upbringing, I didn’t
convert to either Christianity or Hinduism but grew up learning a lot about
both religions and communities, by living with them. We lived in each other’s
homes, ate together (keeping to our own food laws strictly), celebrated each other’s
festivals and didn’t feel that our own religion was threatened by this mutual
understanding. I have written about this in detail in my book, ‘It’s my Life’ and so won’t repeat it here. Please read the book. You’ll enjoy it.
am speaking of this here because the one big thing that happened thanks to this
upbringing is that today, when someone tries to tell me about how bad and vicious
Hinduism or Christianity are, I have the frame of reference of both from my own
life experience against which to check what I am hearing. I reject these messages
because I didn’t experience these religions or those who follow them, in that
way at all. Ditto Judaism, from my experience which I described above. Therefore,
the first and most important thing to do is to ensure that we get to know one
another, personally, experientially and closely.
am therefore able to distinguish and differentiate between the action of someone
who professes to belong to a particular religion but does things that are
prohibited in that religion. That, in my opinion, places that individual, outside
his religion. He is not a representative of his religion and his actions are the
result of his rejecting his religion, not of practicing it. So, I reject that individual
and his actions, not his religion. In my view, in the case of those who are
responsible for the mass murder in Sri Lanka that happened on Easter Sunday, April
21, 2019; those people are criminals and must be treated as such. They must be caught
and punished to the full extent of the law. On no account must we accept their
professed logic of representing this or that religion and on that account buy
into the negative, toxic philosophy of hating that religion or its adherents,
who are our neighbors and family. We must do this because we must defeat this
hate-filled thinking that is sought to be imposed on us. We can only do this if
we reject it. Not if we buy into it.
I am reminded of a story I heard in 1997, about
the man who used to stand before the White House every night holding a candle,
in his struggle to have the UN sanctions against Iraq, lifted. One night, it
was cold and wet and windy. But the man was there in his place, holding an
umbrella and trying to protect his candle from the rain.
at the gate, who used to see him every day, came out to him and said, “Tell me
why do you do this? Do you really think you can change them?”
replied, “I don’t do this to change them. I do it so that they won’t be able to
It is very
important that we speak out. The time for silence is over. The time for action
They say that reading biographies is perhaps the best way to learn real life lessons. That is because a biography is a record of practice. Of what worked and what didn’t. The life of Muhammadﷺ is perhaps one of the most well documented in human history. Having said that one may ask why his life and all the detail is important at all?
The answer lies in the facts related to his life which are public knowledge. Here was someone who in a period of 23 years, took his people from being the weakest, most despised and oppressed in their community to being the leaders and role models in the same community. And he did all that without lies, cheating, corruption, violence or bloodshed. My question is, ‘Would you like to know how to do that? Would you like to know how to bring about not incremental but transformational change in your society? Then read the life of Muhammadﷺ.’
In the words of J. Krishnamurty, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ I don’t think there is anyone, including the 1% who appear to have it all who will disagree that we are very sick. Humanity is sick. The earth is sick. We are all very sick. We need action. And we need it now.
Call it a strange coincidence but 5th Century Makkah was a microcosm of our global capitalist, pluralist, multicultural, multiracial society. I want to hypothesize that because Muhammadﷺ despite being a person with almost no resources, support or political power, could bring about a complete transformation of his society, then we have reason to hope that the methods he used can work today for us as well.
To quote Alphonse de Lamartine, in his book, ‘History of Turkey’ who said, “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”
Muhammadﷺ didn’t focus on bringing about any materialistic changes in the lives of people. The changes he brought about ideological, ethical and moral, changed not only their lives but also changed the structure, laws, freedom and behavior of Arab society. Muhammadﷺ brought about changes in the way people thought, in their ideals and benchmarks which led to a change in what they considered important, which in turn led to a change in their behavior which brought about a change in society. As they say, it all begins at the top; in the mind. Once we change our attitude, our behavior changes which leads to perceptible results in and around us. All change must begin with us internally, with how we view the world, what we want from it, what we find satisfaction in and what we are prepared to do (and not do) to get it. We need to define the meaning of a ‘good life’ and be clear about what investment we are prepared to make, to get it.
There are two critical requirements that distinguish all real human development. These are the reasons we remember all great leaders who changed the world. They are concern and compassion. Muhammadﷺ exemplified these in his life and message. Any development that is not based on compassion is not development but regression to a time when the one who had the sword chopped a man in half to test its sharpness, legally. What’s legal is not necessarily right. Example: Apartheid is official and legal in Israel today.