Attitude

Attitude

Attitude can’t be enforced – it must be inspired

“Can we change their attitude?”

“No.”

“Can they change their own attitude?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Ah! We are now at the root of the problem and it is: Do I want to change my own attitude?”

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.

The first Kural in Thirukkural is:

Agara mudhala ezhuthellam aadhi
bhagavan mudhatrey ulagu

(As Agara – A – is the first letter of the alphabet, so also God is before all creation)

In 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.

It 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.

In 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.

In 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.  

Guyana memories

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 the challenge.

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? You.

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 you doing?”

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.

 What are 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 implied.

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 Disraeli, 1st 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.

Blacksmiths, inheritors of Crossley

The Crossley engine was iconic and as much a part of a tea garden as a tea bush. Crossley engineers trained local men with an aptitude for mechanical tinkering who became Blacksmiths’ and were a legend. Most of them had had no formal education to speak of. All they had was the interest to learn, curiosity and dexterity and were very creative. They attempted anything and succeeded where highly trained mechanical engineers would be stumped. I put this down to what our formal education does to the mind, where our creativity is severely curtailed within the imaginary boundaries of what ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ be done. Those who are not mentally conditioned in this way, try all sorts of new ways with great success because nobody told them what ‘can’t’ be done.

One of my favorite stories about how creative people without a formal education can be is as follows. When I took over Lower Sheikalmudi Estate as the Manager, one of the things that I concentrated on was to make the land more productive. I took a three-pronged approach. We dug trenches in the swamps to drain the water and planted cardamom on the ridges between the trenches and planted pepper on the shade trees – Grevillea Robusta (Silver Oak). We filled in (planted tea) all vacant patches and tea field boundaries. And we reclaimed all big vegetable gardens which had become more commercial than personal and had encroached into our tea fields. The incident I want to mention here had to do with an infilling area in the LSM Upper Division. This was a large bare hilltop which was about ten acres in extent, which we planted with clonal cuttings. Since the area was completely bare and open, I was very concerned about the survival of the cuttings as we were going into the dry weather.

There was no water on site to irrigate the plants. If we dug a well in the swamp at the bottom of the hill, we would have to install a diesel pump because there was no electricity there, then put in a pipeline and build a tank on top of the hill. Only then would we be able to irrigate this plot. An expensive proposition to say the least. We were taking all other moisture conservation measures; mulching the plants, digging lock and spill trenches and filling them with coconut husk to retain whatever moisture that occasional rain and daily dew fall would yield. But I knew that these would not be enough when the summer set in and we would probably have heavy casualties if we couldn’t irrigate the plants. One day I was standing on the hilltop with Mr. Govindraj, my Field Officer, and we were talking about the problems of irrigation and how important it was for the successful survival of these plants. There were a few workers around us, digging trenches. As we were speaking, one of them, Shashi, said to me, ‘Dorai, if you permit me, I can bring water here to this hilltop.’ Mr. Govindraj’s instant reflex reaction was, ‘Hey! Keep quiet and do your work. Don’t interrupt the Manager when he is speaking.’ Such were those days.

I immediately stopped Govindraj and said to the man, ‘Tell me how you will do it?’

Shashi said, ‘Dorai, I want two helpers for two days, permission to cut bamboo in our reserve forest, and two or three empty diesel barrels (they have a capacity of two-hundred liters). Give me this and I will get water here from that stream over there,’ and he pointed to the stream in the ravine near the forest boundary. The stream was at least three kilometers away as the crow flies in a small ravine abutting the forest. If the crow walked it was much further. I was very intrigued. He wouldn’t explain any more when I asked him. I instructed Govindraj to give him what he asked as I wanted to see what he would do.

About a week later he came to meet me in the Muster and asked me to go to see what he had made. I was astounded to see what he had done. He had cut mature bamboo and punched through the nodal septa to create a pipe. Then he had rigged up a siphon system using the diesel barrels to lift the water from one level to another and had water from the stream flowing out of the end of the bamboo pipe into a small tank in the middle of the tea infilling area. It was a system that cost next to nothing to build, needed neither power nor manual attention to run, and was made by a man whose job was manual labor. In effect we had a hydraulic engineer in our midst who had never gone to college, could barely read and write, usually dug holes in the ground or did other such unedifying jobs, and his knowledge was hidden because nobody bothered to ask him. If I had also followed suit and allowed my Field Officer to shut him up, we would have unnecessarily spent a fortune to do something that one of our own workers did for us, free of cost. I invited our General Manager to visit the estate and see what he had done, and we took photographs and gave him a gift. Everyone all around was delighted but none so much as myself for the life lesson I learnt.

With Shashi on my right in the tea nursery – 2010

I later promoted Shashi to Supervisor and put him in charge of our tea nursery as he was very smart and had a lot of good ideas. I used to listen to him carefully and we did many an interesting thing as a result of his ideas. People close to the job know the most about it, if only managers will listen. And it’s all free. He did a brilliant job with the nursery and several years later after I had left, I understand that he was promoted to the Staff grade. As they say, ‘you can’t keep a good man down.’

Our Blacksmiths kept machinery which should have legitimately been given a decent burial in the 19th century, alive and kicking – generating electricity, running pumps, factories and what-have-you. Amazing work, mostly unsung but hugely appreciated by those who benefited from it. These ‘Blacksmiths’ were able to keep not only the Crossley engines running but handled anything that moved with equal confidence and aplomb. This included tractors without generators or starters, motorcycles with temperamental carburetors and even the Peria Dorai’s (PD) car. All passed through the hands of the Estate Blacksmith and lived to tell the tale. They were also artists with the lathe machine. All CTC factories have lathe machines to sharpen CTC rollers. On these machines were made all kinds of knickknacks, tools and what-have-you, as required or desired – sometimes the difference between the two being non-existent. 

Thangavelu – trying to look serious

I had a blacksmith on my estate, Lower Sheikalmudi, called Thangavelu. His trademark was his smile, showing huge gaps of missing teeth but bright and shining like the rising sun, no matter what time of the day or night you called him. The other thing about him was that no matter when you saw him, he always looked like he had been freshly dipped in a drum of lube oil. I used to tell him that if I cut him, oil and not blood would flow. Which got a huge laugh as my reward. Thangavelu was an absolute wizard with his hands. He’s had no education to speak of and so his creativity and initiative were intact. He did things with bits of wire, soap, wire mesh and coconut fiber which kept machines turning in an emergency until we could get the right part or consumable that had given up the ghost. He once made me a pruning knife with a truck spring blade and put a handle on it encased in staghorn (from a discarded Sambar horn picked up in the forest), secured with copper bands. It was a thing of real beauty and I carried it with pride for a number of years.

One day when I had been transferred to Paralai Estate, I gave it to one of my pruning workers to sharpen. Then I left to inspect some plucking and then went to the office in the afternoon. While I was in the office, some workers came running and said that Forest Department officers had come and arrested several of our workers from the pruning field and taken them off to Pollachi. I was astonished until I learnt that while they had been pruning, a Barking Deer got flushed out from under some unpruned tea. The deer ran for its life but one of the workers threw his knife which brought it down and before anyone could think, other workers had butchered it. I was furious at them for having killed a poor animal which apart from the kindness angle was also illegal. This whole thing was reported to the Forest Range Officer who came and arrested the workers and hauled them off to the Police Station in Pollachi. The workers who came to me, said that they had been locked up and had not had anything to eat and their families were distraught.

I drove down to Pollachi and met the Range Officer and the Superintendent of Police. I arranged for the workers in the lockup to be fed. Then I persuaded the officers to drop the case against them as they had done their deed without any thought, almost as a reflex. It took a lot of talking and the fact that I knew the officers concerned and had a good relationship with them. What also helped was the fact that I had driven all the way down from the Anamallais for these workers, which was not usual and so everyone was very impressed, and the case was dropped, and the workers released. The only casualty, apart from the poor Barking Deer (which incidentally made a nice meal for the Forest Department and Police guys) was my pruning knife. It had been ceased by the Range Officer, who fell in love with it and when I went to meet him, it was on his table. He asked me if I would be kind enough to allow him to keep it. With my workers’ freedom in his hands, I had hardly any choice. So, I bid it farewell. Thangavelu never got around to making me another one though we talked about it many times.

As was the custom of the plantations when any Assistant Manager 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 married status, which gave you a higher level of status and respect. They also had ‘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.

I have written about how my estate workers welcomed us when we returned to the estate. https://yawarbaig.com/wherearetheleaders/see-with-their-eyes/  The beauty of planting life was that it was like being in a family. You had your bickering, sometimes it could be trying. But always there was mutual affection and traditions to uphold and the proper etiquette in all things. And most importantly, in an emergency, everyone stood by you.

These dinner parties in our honor 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. We were 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 Mr. AVG Menon if I could borrow car, a brand new Hindustan Ambassador which had arrived just that week, 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 with about 2 hours of sleep, but we set off, Samina and I, on this long drive. We arrived at Prema and Ricky’s house to a very warm welcome. Samina 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 fuel 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 Samina and me, ‘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 on account 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 roadbed. Samina 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 told Samina 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 2 kilometers from where I was. Our roads had no streetlights 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 Mr. AVG Menon was. 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. 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 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 and Samina 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.

Outside talent inside family

It is a no brainer to say that there is no family in the world that can continue to provide all the knowledge, talent and energy it needs, to fuel the growth and development of their business, indefinitely. Yet it is amazing to see the usual reluctance to bring in outside talent, even when it has become abundantly clear that the business will flounder if the knowledge and skills that are needed are not provided in a timely manner.

Here are some important things that Family Business Owners/CEO’s must keep in mind so that they can create a climate that can attract and retain the best professional talent.

The first and foremost thing to do is to consciously make the decision to hire professionals. If professionals from big-name MNCs are hired as a matter of prestige or fashion as happens more often than one would like to believe, it is almost certain that the hire will go wrong. Once the conscious decision has been taken it is essential for the family to spend a sufficient amount of time helping the professional to understand what he or she is getting into. Family business cultures are as different from each other as can be. The professional that the family business hires will more than likely not have any idea about the dynamics, culture, taboos, norms and accepted behaviors of the family and their business. It is likely that given the corporate MNC culture of a Western company, he may find some of the norms and expected behaviors difficult or even impossible to follow. In such cases it is better that this is discovered early and the hiring is not done, rather than have to go through what can be a painful and embarrassing termination. Be frank with the incumbent; let him see what and how you are from as close as possible. Share all that you do and expect him to do without reservation and then let him decide if he wants to join. It is a good idea also to create a space for his family to meet your family and share some mindscape. The social interaction can help in breaking the ice and helping both parties to see each other without any pretense, voluntary or otherwise.

  1. Choose the best:

Believe me, the best really want to work for you. Get professional help to hire the best because the best don’t just happen round the corner. It is a common mistake that many family business owners make of treating professionals as a ‘cost’. They hire below themselves as they don’t want to pay what it takes to hire the best. This is a very costly mistake. And you will pay that price. It is an accepted fact in leading edge global MNCs that hiring superior people is the most cost-effective choice. Survey after survey shows that superior people may be up to 15% more expensive but produce between 40-50% more in terms of output. Hire the best and from them, demand the best. Those who are worthy of their salt will welcome working to high standards. This will also create the kind of achievement-oriented culture you need to attract the best talent. Winners attract winners. So do losers.

  1. Treat them with respect:

They are not the ‘hired help’. They work for the company, not for you personally. Don’t use them to do your personal jobs and actively discourage those who will offer to do them to suck-up to you. Give professionals responsibility that is commensurate with their qualifications so that you can really leverage their talent and experience for your company. Some family business CEOs collect professionals from various MNCs like people collect watches or paintings. Then they talk about who they have working for them. But when it comes to giving them freedom and authority to take decisions and really bring about change in the company, they tie their hands and don’t allow them to function.  Professionals who have self-respect and who are interested in their careers, leave when they see what is happening. Others, for their own personal reasons stay on, lose their edge and gradually vegetate at your expense.

  1. Don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep:

Treat them like the professional colleagues they are. Some business owners in their eagerness to hire some high profile professional promise them all kinds of things which they personally have no authority to deliver. When the promises don’t pan out, the professional justifiably feels let down and will more than likely leave. I recall one case where one family business CEO hired a high-profile HR head from a global MNC with the ‘incentive’ that the family wanted to replicate the global MNC’s corporate university in India. The HR professional was very excited believed the dream merchant who hired him, only to be hugely disappointed later. He lasted with them for all of six months.

  1. Pay well:

This is a big one. Many family business owners are so used to doing things themselves or getting their family or friends to do things for them for love that they almost take umbrage if anyone suggests that service needs to be paid for in cash. When hiring professionals, they treat having to pay a salary like having teeth extracted and try to haggle and pay as little as possible. On the other end of the spectrum are those who are over generous and pay out of guilt or to tell their friends how much they are paying key professionals. Both approaches are wrong. If you pay peanuts you get monkeys who will steal the peanuts. Honesty does have a price, believe it or not. And overpaying does not buy either loyalty or dedication. Check the market. Pay either the market value or 5% -10% more, since your company may not be such a great name to have on the CV. But don’t pay more than that. If the person you are hiring needs to be literally purchased, then he is not worth hiring. You want people to join you also for the challenge and for what they think they can achieve for you.

  1. Create a clear career path for them:

Professionals are very anxious in family businesses to know where their career will take them. They may accept not becoming the CEO, but they would naturally expect to get to the No.2 position or to the head of a functional or SBU role in a reasonable time. Create a career path for them based on clearly defined goals. I have recommended that even the CEO’s job must be open to professionals because you want the CEO to be the best qualified person. And if it is a non-family person, so be it. That is good for the business and by inference good for the family. 

  1. Demand excellence:

Demonstrate excellence. Inspire and then never settle for anything but the best. Competent professionals like to demonstrate what they can do. Set high goals and reward those who exceed them, handsomely. A good objective performance management system is also a major asset in attracting and retaining the right people. Many professionals are very apprehensive of subjective appraisals in family businesses and the whole business of being ‘liked’. A clear-cut performance management system assures them that their achievements will be noticed and rewarded objectively and that their career progress does not depend on subjective likes and dislikes.

  1. Expose them internationally: Invest in their learning:

Give your key professionals international exposure. Let them publish, present papers at international seminars, teach at business schools, participate in service programs. Only if they meet others will they learn. What they learn they will bring back to you. Sure, a couple will leave. Those couple would have left anyway. In any case you need a flow of a clean cool breeze, now and again. But others will join you because they see the caliber of people you have working with you. Make learning an item on the Performance Appraisal System. Provide learning opportunities, pay for them, and support those who learn. Then ask them how you can enable them to apply what they learnt in your place. Without the challenge of international exposure professionals will lose their edge and thereby their usefulness to you.

Don’t be shortsighted with respect to employee development. People who want to learn are precisely the kind of people you need. Don’t punish them for wanting to learn. Appreciate their spirit and support them, so that they will create a culture of learning in the organization. Some employers think differently, to their own detriment.

  1. Give them a stake in the business:

Key professionals help you to become more profitable. They are the cause of your wellbeing. Acknowledge and appreciate that materially. Believe me, they are smart enough to know their own worth. They need to be appreciated and their contributions acknowledged. The best option is to give key executives a percentage of the profit. Some people recommend stock options or phantom stocks, but these can have other implications for the family itself. A percentage of the profit is a neat, clean way to give the professional a stake in the company without raising other issues. They get it if they deliver. Not unless.

In conclusion, business success is about skills and knowledge. Not about genetics and surnames. The family needs the business. The business doesn’t need the family. Just like flying a plane and owning it are two different things and signing the cheque for the plane doesn’t make you a pilot, so also in business. Owning a business doesn’t automatically make you a great businessman. Hire the right people, treat them right, pay them right. That’s the best way to ensure that your own lifestyle doesn’t suffer.

For more, please read my book,

The Business of Family Business’, http://amzn.to/2ptG4sc

Give them memories

Who is your Role Model? Think of someone you know or knew personally, not a public figure. For how many of you is that a parent or a teacher? If I asked your children the same question, what do you think they would say? Who would they be thinking of you? How do you know? What about you inspires your child? How do you know?

 My own association with schooling goes back to 1958 when I was enrolled into St. George’s Nursery & Primary School as an inmate. From there in 1961, I was shifted to Hyderabad Public School from where I graduated in 1970. Several decades later, I was correspondent of the Arunachalam Higher Secondary School, Thiruvattar, near Marthandam in Kanya Kumari District for three years, as part of my main responsibility of being the Manager of New Ambadi Estates, Kulashakharam. This school had 1200 students and 75 teachers and so was a fairly substantial assignment. We took it from being the worst school in the State of Tamilnadu to being one of the best. That is a long story which along with other stories of my life is in my book, ‘It’s my Life’, which is available for all of Rs. 230.00 from Amazon.in. That is the value of 60 years of living; Rs. 230.

I used the term ‘inmate’ for a reason. It is because most, if not all, our schools are run like prisons. The school is owned by an entity, maybe the state or private; most American prisons today are privately owned and run for profit. Prisons have a set of professionals who run them, called Jailors. In the case of schools, they are called Teachers. Children are admitted into the school just as prisoners are admitted into prison. And their entire existence in the system is characterized by one overwhelming reality; lack of autonomy. Just like the existence of prisoners in a jail. They enter at a designated time and must serve their term and can’t leave until that time is over. The gate shuts behind them and they can’t open it. What they do is totally regulated and this is informed to them by bells or buzzers. We believe that young adults including their teachers can’t be trusted to keep to time limits but must be rudely awakened by ringing bells. Students can’t eat, sleep, play, talk or even go to the toilet without asking permission. I can go on, but I won’t because we were all fellow prisoners in the system, while some of us have been elevated to jailor status.

Another enigma and mystery – the Parent Teachers Association. Ask yourself one question: Who is the school, any school, for? Then ask why it is that those who the school is supposed to be for, have absolutely no say in any meaningful decision that affects them? Yet we believe that we will be able to form discerning, responsible, ethical citizens by ensuring that they never take a single decision in the entire time that they spend at school. We fill their heads with random information and grade them as passed or failed on their ability at random recall within a specific time frame. We don’t test knowledge or understanding, much less application. We simply test memory.

Ask yourself how you define ‘Good student’? Regurgitation of undigested food is called vomit. Regurgitation of undigested information is called passing exams. If you don’t believe me, tell me when was the last time you gave a prize for dissent? What happens to a student who tells you the truth; i.e. that what he is being taught makes no sense? What happens to a student who understands what you taught but not why you taught it or why she should learn it or where to apply it, because none of that is taught? And finally, if the child fails in the exam or more importantly, fails to learn, whose failure is it really? But who gets punished? Whose career can be in jeopardy? And who takes home her full salary without any problem? Schooling is the only system in society where product quality and customer satisfaction have no relevance. To use Mikel Harry’s definition for quality, he said, ‘If you want to see what people value, see what they measure.’ Ask yourself if you measure the quality of your parenting and teaching and if so what is the price you pay when you don’t come up to the standard. That is why you need to define the standard first.

Finally, the last nail in the coffin, the issue of life skills. In our current system, it simply doesn’t even exist. As an experiment, which I do not suggest you do, ask one of our near and dear ones who graduates from Grade 12, to leave home and take care of herself or himself for one month without going to anyone they know. I don’t think I need to describe for you, what will happen. That this happens at the end of 15 years of full time ‘education’ which you paid for and from which everyone involved benefited materially, is to put it politely, tragic. Ask yourself what you would call someone who studied something full time for 15 years? Ask yourself what you call your graduating 12th grader. Then ask yourself why?

This is not a litany of grief nor a doomsday scenario. It is a snapshot of what exists today. I can assure you that it is changeable, curable and that too without too much pain, provided only one thing; that you should want to do it. I am happy to show the way, but like the doctor, I can’t eat the medicine on your behalf.

My first set of questions to you, parents and teachers, is, ‘What does education mean to you? Why do you teach? What do you teach? How do you teach?’ These are three fundamental questions that you need to answer in a way that is convincing and inspiring. Don’t get bogged down by matters of syllabus and curriculum. These are fundamental questions that relate to your whole belief about raising children.

My second set of questions therefore is, ‘What kind of person are you trying to create in your child?’ Do you have a clear definition? Who is your role model for that? Does that inspire you? Does it make you lose sleep in the night? Do you measure yourself against a standard with respect to that definition? Do you stand before Allahﷻ and ask for His help in enabling you to achieve that goal?

It is a design issue first. Then we come to the tools and environment. You can’t build a plane in a train factory. So also, you can’t create leaders in a system designed to produce obedient slaves.

And most important of all, ‘Does your child share this dream with you?’ Because the reality is that unless he or she does, nothing will happen.

I remind you of what I said earlier: Children listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say, until they see what you do.

 My dear friend Advocate Shafeeq Mahajir sent me this story which illustrates what I mean very well.

“I was waiting at a traffic light to cross the road with Haruki, a Japanese friend. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon in a small town on the outskirts of Tokyo and there was not a vehicle or soul in sight. So, I turned to Haruki and said, “Hey, I know it’s a red man but should we just cross?”

Haruki looked at me and shook his head. “No, we wait for the green man.”

I was a bit perplexed – it did not seem to me that it would make any difference whether we waited or not. “There aren’t any cars. Why do we need to wait?”

Haruki smiled, then asked me a question in return: “What if a child is watching?”

That is why in Africa they say, “It takes the whole village to bring up a child.”

Today we are facing a crisis. A crisis of youth. We have the youngest population in the world. We have 526 million people under the age of 25. Out of that we have 272 million between the ages of 10 & 19. That means that for the next 30 to 40 years we will have the youngest population of any nation. This makes us ideally suited to become the workforce for the world. But that is conditional upon two things: a high-quality skill training system and high-quality infrastructure. On the first, statistics of 2016 tell us that we are producing engineers of which 3.7% are employable. That means 96.3% are not. So, even if jobs are created, who will do the work? And remember that this 96.3% failures are of those who made it to engineering college. What about the millions who don’t get beyond school education itself? They still exist, they still need food, shelter, housing, medical care, employment and happiness. What will happen when all they come up against stone walls at all these thresholds?

I was driving in rural Madhya Pradesh, barely an hour out of the capital, Bhopal when I noticed in every single village we passed through, young boys (no girls) wearing trousers (some in jeans) and shirts, standing idly on street corners. Believe me this is the situation in almost every state in North India. South India is marginally better.

When I saw this for the Nth time, I asked my driver, ‘Why are they standing here? Why are they not in school or college or at work?’

He said to me, ‘Sir school khatam ho gaya, college ja nahin saktay, kaam nahin hai.’

I asked him, ‘Kheti kyon nahin kartay?’

He said, ‘Sir, school jo gaye hain. Ab kheti nahin kar saktay. Kheti karna bey izzati samajhtay hain. In kay baap khet mein kaam kartay hain. Betay pant shirt pahen kay nukkad par jama hotay hain aur time paas kartay hain.’

Me, ‘Khatay kya hain?’

He, ‘Jo in kay bapu kamatay hain. Ya phir kaheen majdoori kar laytay hain. Par ummeed bahut oopar ki hai. Wo tho nahin mil sakti. Tho dil udaas hain.’

These are the raw material for the drug trade, for crime. They are the cannon fodder for those who want to gain political power by invoking all kinds of divisiveness and violence. They have no job, no education, no nothing but they have a vote. How do we reach them? How do we help them? We are sitting on a timebomb which is ticking. As I said, I have a solution, so please bear with me.

Infrastructure development means becoming energy sufficient, making world class ports and transportation systems. Without these four things; clean, reliable energy, good transportation, ports and a highly employable workforce, no major investor will invest in this country. I won’t go into a probability analysis of all this, but I think the writing on the wall is clear for anyone who can read. The only way out is high-quality schools which can produce ethical, moral citizens, who are trained as entrepreneurs. Governments can’t help us. We must help ourselves or get prepared to perish.

My solution is implementable by every school and the results will be visible within a few years. It has three interlinked parts:

  1. Vocational/Skill education in all secondary and high schools. Every child must learn a skill and must be able to work with his/her hands.
  2. Entrepreneurial training
  3. Venture Capital Fund to incubate young entrepreneurs

The best solution to combat crime is to give people something to lose. In addition, tough zero tolerance for crime, which means that criminals must pay, not crime.

On top of that we have a society where corruption is not just acceptable but aspirational, people have an entitlement mentality, compassion has vanished, oppression is the law of the land and crime pays instead of criminals. So, teach values before you teach anything else. And remember that values can’t be legislated. Values must be inculcated. You must practice what you preach, or it will fail, and you will lose respect to boot. Your job as parents and teachers is to give them memories. It is those memories that will come to their aid in times of emotional and moral dilemmas. It is those memories which will become their touchstone, their criteria for making their own decisions in their lives. Give them memories thoughtfully because you are giving them memories anyway. Make sure that you give them memories that they will honor you for and remember you by and pray for you and seek forgiveness for you from Allahﷻ when you have long gone into your grave. Let me share with you some memories that my parents and teachers gave me.

During the years that I was in school, Hyderabad Public School, the principal was Mr. K. Kuruvilla Jacob. Mr. Jacob was a legend in his own lifetime. A man who taught me about leadership before I knew the word. Let me tell you one story about his leadership style as I experienced it.

It was 1968 and I was in Grade 8. I was sitting in class waiting for the morning recess bell to go off. My seat was by the window looking out over the courtyard across which were the toilets. To my amazement, I saw Mr. Jacob walking into the toilets with a bucket with cleaning brushes in it. A word about how Mr. Jacob looked and dressed is necessary to appreciate the reason for my surprise. Mr. Jacob was a tall and dark man who always wore white on white. He wore a white bush coat – patch pockets, half sleeves on white trousers and shining black shoes. His clothes were always sparkling white, starched and ironed to a knife-edge. You could cut yourself on the crease of his trousers and look at your face in his shoes. Here was this man in those clothes walking into our toilets with a bucket and toilet cleaners.

I dug my seat mate in his ribs and gestured but before his eyes popped out of his head, the bell rang and we all trooped out silently and stood before the toilets. What did we see? Our toilets, like I suppose the toilets in most boys’ schools, had their walls festooned with rather smelly poetry and prose, to put it politely. What we saw was Mr. Jacob, cleaning the walls of the toilets. He worked silently, ignoring us, spraying the cleaner on the walls and then brushing them clean and washing them down with water which he had carried in the bucket. When he finished a few minutes later, he picked up his bucket, finally looked up at us, smiled, and walked away. He didn’t say a word. Not one word. He just smiled at us and walked away, back to his office. We simply stood in silence and watched him disappear. I was in school for four years after that incident and can vouch for the fact that nobody ever wrote anything on the toilet wall again. Interestingly, the phenomenon of writing on the walls of the toilets was universal – all toilets had this graffiti. Mr. Jacob washed only one toilet. But suddenly all toilets were clean, and no graffiti was ever written on them again. And remember, as I said, not one word spoken. I realize today that what he did was as much theatre as it was cleaning, maybe even more theatre than cleaning, but the impact was powerful and permanent. Leading by example always is. Such were my teachers.

Let me tell you about my memories about my parents.

My father Dr. Mirza Anwar Baig was a medical doctor who worked for the Government of Andhra Pradesh, Mysore and lastly with Hyderabad Allwyn Metal Works in the 50’s and 60’s. I have many memories about him but one of the most powerful is of him in his private practice as a doctor. He started it very reluctantly, mostly at my insistence. But strangely he never broke even. I was perplexed because he was one of the best doctors that I have ever known. His clinical diagnosis was like magic. He saw signs in people that today it takes multiple scans to unearth. His patient manners were superb, and people loved him. He had a long line of patients waiting daily and didn’t finish his clinic until 1030 pm. Yet his practice made a loss. I decided to go and see for myself, what he was doing. What did I see? I saw him checking an old lady and then prescribing medicines for her. She said to him, ‘How much will these cost Doctor Saab?’ He said, ‘Ten rupees.’ She said, ‘I am a poor woman Doctor Saab. I don’t have ten rupees. Please prescribe something cheaper.’ My father put his hand in his pocket, took out ten rupees and gave it to her and said, ‘Go and buy the medicines.’ Obviously, there was no question of taking a fee from someone you just gave money, to buy medicines. This seemed to be more the rule than the exception and so a very busy medical practice made losses.

When we got home, I pointed this out to him and told him that if he is not going to take a fee, I could understand. But if in addition he was going to give people money for medicines, how could his practice make a profit? He said to me, ‘What is the good of prescribing medicines, when I know they can’t buy them?’ In a last-ditch stand, I asked him, ‘How do you know they are all in need? Maybe they don’t deserve your charity.’ He replied, ‘I don’t deserve what Allahﷻ has given me. So, I am not going to see who deserves and who doesn’t. If anyone asks me for help, I will help if I can. Let Allahﷻ judge who deserves and who doesn’t.’

In conclusion, I would like to state categorically, that the situation is far from hopeless. But for us to change our destiny we will have to redefine the meaning of ‘citizenship’ and start acting like citizens of an independent nation, instead of subjects of a foreign government. Our problem is that we have not got out of the colonial mindset. That is why we call our elected representatives, ‘rulers’. And we consider ourselves passive, helpless beings to whom things are done. Our only recourse is to train our children to become active participants in society and create a culture where dissent is not just accepted but encouraged, people have fora to voice their opinions and actively participate in societal development. Schools must play a critical role in enabling this by becoming laboratories of citizenship where children learn to own responsibility and take decisions for the general good. Care of the commons must be a major factor of concern and a change of mindset from entitlement to contribution, the criterion on which we must judge our success. There are many examples from the world of societies which operate on the values of honesty, mutual respect and harmony and a focus on contribution and not entitlement and consumption. The trick is to inculcate these values in our society.

On that depends our future. Not only our development but our very existence.

Madrassa education in India – what needs to change

Madrassa education in India – what needs to change

“In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.” ~ R. Buckminster Fuller

Scope

The purpose of this article is to help the graduates of Madaaris (Ulama) to become relevant in modern society and to be able to provide positive leadership to their congregations. 

 I have tried to define the situation with Madrassa Education in India as I understand it and to propose a solution to the deficiencies and problems that it faces. That these deficiencies and problems are not necessarily recognized or likely to be accepted by those who run Madaaris is to be expected because the first reaction of the patient who is diagnosed with a terminal illness is denial. However, this ‘illness’ though terminal, if left unattended, is curable if addressed. The question is whether those who have the authority – Madrassa administrators and even more importantly, sponsors – are willing to address it and implement the cure. It is my job to share my thoughts. With that, I rest my case before Allah. For I will not be asked, ‘What did you know?’ I will be asked, ‘What did you do?’ That is what you, my dear reader, will also be asked.

About the issues with the quality of education in our Madrassas in  India, I believe we need to look at the syllabus which is based on the Dars-eNizami. Dars-e-Nizami or its derivatives are taught in thousands of Madaaris worldwide which draw inspiration, instruction or follow the principles and values of Darul Uloom Deoband, arguably the most respected Madrassa in the subcontinent.  I have quoted from Darul Uloom Deoband’s site because Deoband is the bastion of this syllabus and methodology. You can see what they themselves say about what the student gains after eight years of full-time residential ‘education’. (bold type below is mine).

Its founder was Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi (d. 1748), who was contemporary of Hazrat Shah Waliullah. The curriculum known as “Dars-e Nizami”, which is current today in all the Arabic schools, is a relic from him. Adding something more to the syllabi of the third period, Mulla Nizamuddin prepared a new syllabus. The great peculiarity of this syllabus is that more attention has been paid in it to the creation of depth of insight and power of reading in the student, and although immediately after the completion of this course proficiency is not acquired in any particular subject, this much ability is surely created that, through one’s own independent reading and labor, one may acquire proficiency in any subject of one’s liking. The standard of Hadith and Tafsir in this course too is not much high, and of literature there is included no book at all.

http://www.darululoomdeoband.com/english/sys_of_edu/index.htm

Mulla Nizamuddin created what came to be called Dars-e-Nizami in the 1730’s, more than a century before 1857 and the establishment of British rule in India. He created the syllabus to enable Madrassa graduates to get government jobs in the Moghul administration. Since he was from Lucknow where the influence of Iran was very strong, his course gave far more importance to Ilm Kalam, Greek philosophy, logic (Mantiq), Farsi and not to the Qur’an, Hadith and Seerah. What is amazing is the sincerity with which our Madrassa authorities still cling to this totally outdated syllabus ignoring all the changes in time, space, political situation and realities of the modern world that have happened since the 1730’s. The result is that they are still producing graduates ideally suited to enter the service of a government that ceased to exist a century and a half ago.

I don’t think there is any doubt in the minds of anyone including those who graduate from Madaaris with at least some residual ability to think still intact, that there is a crying need for change. Not merely cosmetic or incremental change but a total transformation of the curriculum, syllabus and teaching methodology to ensure that those who graduate from there can enter society with confidence.

The reason this is even more important is because according to the Justice Sachar Committee Report (2005) http://bit.ly/2fmNJoY there are two million students in Madaaris in India. That is less than 2% of the population of Indian Muslims but it is significant because of the amount of money that is spent voluntarily on it by the community which the same Report defines as being economically speaking, the weakest in the nation. Yet the Indian Muslim community spends a colossal INR 24 billion (2400 crores) annually on sponsoring Madrassa education. I doubt if there is any other community of Indians who can match this contribution to national development.

I arrived at this figure by assuming a cost/student of INR 1000 per month per student. The actual cost is most likely to be double that or more as most Madaaris provide boarding, lodging and education, totally free. However, for our discussion the amount of INR 24 billion (2400 crores) is sufficient. It is my contention that anyone (person or group) that spends so much money must be concerned about the quality of the output for which the money is being spent. I believe that is where the problem starts because to the best of my knowledge there is no particular purpose or clear objective of Madrassa education.

No Madrassa teacher or director has ever been able to answer me clearly when I asked them to describe what their final product, the graduate of the Madrassa, was supposed to be. Educators teach what they have been mandated to teach according to the syllabus. Sponsors sponsor the education considering it to be a ‘good deed’ for which Allahﷻ will reward them. Students who come mostly from the poorest strata of Muslim society and their parents, have no voice at all in deciding what is taught, how it is taught or what the result is. The fact that the graduate is called A’alim is a bonus and he exists with a sense of position though without any skills to lead his life in society.

In brief this is what happens in Dars-e-Nizami. This is not a criticism of this work and may Allahﷻ grant the best reward to the its author. I am mentioning this to you so that you, who live in today’s world, can decide if it is enough as the fundamental education for young people and relevant in our 21st century world. I want you to see this also in the light of Islamic religious education and ask yourself if this is sufficient for someone who is going to emerge at the other end and be called A’alim.

Under Dars-e-Nizami curriculum:

  1. Students only touch the Qur’an as the method is a ‘Dawrah’ (reading, not teaching). Tafsir-i-Jalalayn (which has fewer words than the Qur’an!) is followed and that is done for Barakah only. Usool-ul-Tafsir are not taught. Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and Sunnah, is not taught which means that students never get to touch the original revelation but must be content with the translation. Instead Arabic books are taught in Urdu (translations) and this is not considered either strange or wrong. The teachers themselves don’t know Arabic, so if one wanted to bring about a change, it would not be so easy as to simply tell teachers to teach in the original language of the book, which is Arabic. They can’t because they don’t know it themselves. Yet they are recruited, paid and teach.
  2. Interestingly in every Western university where there is a Faulty of Islamic Studies, fluency in Arabic is a pre-requisite for being recruited as a teacher. Consequently, they have non-Muslim teachers who know Arabic and can quote the Qur’an and Hadith which our graduates from our Darul Ulooms and even their teachers, can’t. It is a matter of shame for us that Islam is the only religion which is taught by non-Muslims in many Western universities because all the Darul Ulooms of the Indian Subcontinent together, can’t produce enough graduates who are fit to be hired into a system that demands the knowledge of the language of the Qur’an to teach the Qur’an. The fact that they don’t know English either doesn’t help and non-Muslims teach Islam to Muslim students, understandably with their biases and prejudices.
  3. The six books on Hadith are also taught in a similar fashion – as a ‘dawrah’ during the last year. Students gain neither knowledge nor understanding. The teacher simply reads, gives a short explanation and goes on to the next Hadith. There is no discussion, no question and answer, no reflection on the Asbaab (circumstances) of the Hadith, no comparison with what Rasoolullahﷺ taught in a given situation and how it compares and contrasts with what we are taught or what we do in our own lives. There is no time to contemplate on any Hadith and think about how to apply the teachings in current times.
  4. History and Seerah are neither taught in detail nor to extract lessons. This is the strangest and most crippling deficiency because Allahﷻ ordered us to learn about the life of His Prophet, Muhammadﷺ and to emulate him and follow his way. If this is not even done in a religious school (Deeni Madrassa) then where will it be done?
  5. There is a total lack of critical thinking for fear of raising questions or disagreeing with the established position of the ‘school’. In our Madaris we teach Madhab, not Islam. For example, in Hanafi Madaris like Deoband and others, a whole course is taught about the ‘mistakes’ of Imam Shafi in his extraction of rulings but no course on the Principles of Fiqh (Usool-ul-Fiqh), Manners of Disagreement (Adaab-ul-Ikhtilaaf) or Principles of Extraction of Rulings (Istambaad-ul-Ahkaam). The result is that instead of appreciating the different approaches of the Fiqhi scholars and Imams, students come out with the impression that one of them was ‘right’ and the others were ‘wrong’. And since they follow the ‘right’ one, they are superior to the other classical scholars who were ‘wrong’. This arrogance creates rigidity and is the root cause behind the inter-denominational hatred, divisiveness and violence. Acceptance of a point of view different from one’s own; accepting that someone else can also be correct, is not something that our Madaaris believe in, teach or practice.
  6. Even this would have been acceptable if they had been open about it. They would still be wrong but at least honest. But instead, they publicly proclaim that all the four (Sunni) Imams of Fiqh are correct, but clandestinely and privately they condemn everyone other than Imam Abu Hanifa. They try to enforce Hanafiyat (‘Hanafeeism’ – my coinage) rather than Islam. This is hypocrisy at its worst.
  7. One of the reasons why critical thinking and questioning is discouraged is that people consider the human understanding and interpretation of the revelation by their predecessors as ‘divine’. The opinions of their own scholars (called Akabireen; The Great Ones) are considered sacrosanct, unquestionable, irrefutable and good for all time. The reality is that only Qur’an and authentic Sunnah is divine. Rest of the sciences of religion are human understanding of the revelation and as such are bound to have differences. An interesting corollary is that there is no evidence that anyone who has been raised to this ‘divine’ status today, ever wanted this to be done or told anyone that he was infallible and must be obeyed without question. Yet this is done in their name today.
  8. It’s noteworthy to mention that Imam Abu Hanifa’s main students (Imam Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad) differ from him in one-third of his madhab. It shows that he trained his students to think rather than copy him and if they differed from his opinion he didn’t throw them out of his class. But his way has been lost today.
  9. Students in Madaris succeed because they focus on memory. Madrassas deliberately discourage, even punish, critical thinking. The most powerful way to do this is to make everything sacred and therefore unquestionable. There is no difference in approach to the Word of Allahﷻ, the teachings of His Messengerﷺ and the teachings of (especially and almost exclusively) the scholars of a particular Madhab. The word ‘Akabireen’ (Great Ones), is used exclusively for scholars of the Madhab only. No Deobandi – Hanafi means Iman Shafi, Imam Ahmad or Imam Malik when he says, ‘Akabireen’ with the appropriate intonation of respectful reference. He means not only Imam Abu Hanifa exclusively, but he means the Ustaadhs of Darul Uloom Deoband only. So, where is the question of questioning anything that was ruled by any of them when to do so would be to literally put your life and reputation on the line. “To question is not to deny” – is not something that our traditionalists believe in. Our way is to hear and obey, even though that is something that applies only to the Word and Orders of Allahﷻ Raising humans to a semi-divine status is always injurious to reason.
  10. Since students don’t learn Arabic, which is the language of both Qur’an and Sunnah, they are not able to reach the source books and study them directly. They rely on translations which are bound to have their limitations. But this situation is not remedied. Instead it is accepted as inevitable, unchangeable and correct.
  11. The teachings and rulings of Rasoolullahﷺ are treated as if coming from a ‘Mufti’ rather than from the Messenger of Allahﷺ. People don’t take guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah. Instead they impose their own understanding from their culture, ideas, philosophy on the Qur’an and Sunnah. Instead of taking from the Qur’an & Sunnah, people start to give to Qur’an.
  12. Finally, in what is, in reality, a basic primary to secondary or at the most, high school level course, nothing is taught of math or science, history (mentioned earlier) or geography. How someone who never learnt math can even be called ‘educated’ is beyond me, but that is what happens in our Madaris. Yet the student graduates from high school with the title, ‘A’alim’ and its attendant attitude.
  13. Teaching methodology in Madaaris is totally defunct and completely free from all the latest developments in teaching technology and methods. Madrassa education in the Indian subcontinent is the only system in which teacher training is unheard of. So is understanding of child psychology, class plans, teacher assessment, standardized exams or any of the teaching aids that are commonplace in every other school. Just ask a normal Madrassa teacher about any of these things and you will see what I mean. Corporal punishment is normal and brutal.

Yet there seems to be no concern in our community and no anguish except in my heart. No effort to change anything because of our innate laziness and blind following of the ‘Ulama’. This elevation of status of ‘Ulama’ (Madrassa graduates) to a level of semi-divinity, is the masterstroke which the ‘Ulama’ have played which shuts down all legitimate criticism which could have resulted in improvement.  Instead, anyone who dares to criticize with sincerity and concern is deemed a rebel with his status liable to be promoted to ‘apostate’, if he doesn’t cease and desist and refuses to toe the line.

For those sponsors of Madaaris reading this I would like to respectfully ask, ‘How many of you have taken the trouble to go and see what is taught and how, in the institutions you support? If you haven’t, then ask yourself, ‘Why not?’ How and why are you so disinterested in what you are sponsoring that you don’t take any trouble to ask what is taught, why it is taught, how it is taught and what is sought to be achieved because of the teaching. Do you have any idea what you want to achieve apart from getting Thawaab?  I don’t think that anyone will differ about the need to have a clear focus on the purpose of Islamic education and to bring Islamic education on par with secular education in terms of teaching curricula and methods. Then why don’t you do it?

The present syllabus is totally inadequate both theologically and in a worldly sense. Add to that the fact that graduates come out with the title of A’alim and an inflated sense of their own importance combined with an inferiority complex. This happens when their Madrassa inflated egos meet the real world and realize their inadequacy. So, they go into a shell because they’re helpless and don’t know how to handle it. In short at the end of eight years of fulltime study the students of our Madaaris graduate with the title of A’alim but without proficiency in anything. You may ask how this is different in the case of a Matric student who also graduates without proficiency in anything. The answer is that he is not called an A’alim and passing Matric is not his final goal.  He passed Matric as a step to enter a pre-university course from where he will enter university and go on to post graduate studies and so on. His self-concept and attitude are completely different, and society treats him accordingly.

The vast majority of those who graduate with the degree of A’alim however, go nowhere. They become Imams and spend the rest of their lives leading Salah in a masjid and start their own Madrassa or teach in another Madrassa albeit without any qualification to teach. That this is the result of 8 – 12 years of so-called education on which a colossal amount is spent by the community which can least afford this luxury, shows how little we care about our own community and its most critical asset; the youth and education.

Quality is the outcome of measurement

How can you have quality in a system where there are neither standards nor metrics? In India, you don’t need any accreditation or certification to start a Madrassa. There are no minimum standards for anything at all; infrastructure, teacher quality, teaching material or any of the normal standards that you would have to satisfy to be certified and permitted to start a basic elementary school. There are no metrics to measure anything in the Madrassa system, so how can you have quality which is the outcome of measurement? Teachers need no qualification to teach nor do they or you feel the need for this. Students come from the poorest and therefore the least powerful or vocal section of society. Students and their parents have low or no aspirations and no voice at all to implement any change, even if they knew what they wanted to be changed. The curriculum has no benchmark to compare with any curriculum today, is not comparable to any other educational system and to top it all is given the patina and glow of the sacred and holy which is meant to throttle any change initiative in the cradle.

To close the loop from where I started, the biggest hurdle to change in the existing Madrassa education system is the fear that any mention of change inspires in those who own and run it. That is entirely understandable because for one thing; the Madaaris are the means of their own livelihood. For another, change in the way that is needed is not merely incremental, evolutionary or cosmetic but revolutionary, transformative and metamorphic. What is needed is a completely new system. Resistance arises from the real fear in the teachers and Madrassa owners of becoming redundant and thereby losing their livelihood. This is a real fear because expecting current teachers to learn a completely new body of knowledge and teaching methodology is unrealistic. Add to it the fact that included in the re-learning is to learn two new languages, Arabic and English, and the water gets even murkier. That is why I began with Buckminster Fuller’s quote. What is needed is to create a new model which will be proof of concept to inspire change and give people the reassurance that success always does. I remind myself of two things: people with limited resources must be very clear and selective about where to spend them to get the maximum benefit. And one day we will be questioned about what we did or failed to do by the One who knows and sees all.

All change must begin with clarifying the goal. Madrassa educators must arrive at a consensus on what they and their Madaris really are; basic primary and secondary schools or higher institutions of specialized theology? As it stands they are neither. Once that is settled, the rest can all be tailored, and standards defined accordingly. We must therefore begin with defining the goal; the end result that we would like to achieve. Once that is clear and agreed upon, one can work on the curriculum, syllabus, course material (books etc.), testing, teaching methodology, teaching tools and technology, infrastructure and teacher training.

Madrassa sponsors must articulate their vision for the training of Ulama. What do we expect them to achieve once they graduate? The goal of learning is something that is not even questioned in any other branch of education because it is clear from the beginning. You don’t need to ask someone running a medical college or a flying school or a Judo dojo or a dance academy, what they expect from the students who graduate. But with respect to our Madaaris and those who graduate from them and those who teach them, their purpose, their life goal, what they are aspiring to become and achieve are all enigmatic and mysterious. That is why there is low motivation which is sought to be countered by rote learning and brutal corporal punishment.

One final matter which all aspiring instigators of change need to keep in mind is that all this needs serious capital investment. Less than what we spend for ostentatious weddings but still significant. Without that we can’t hope to create the infrastructure, teacher training, curriculum development, courseware and myriad other things that are necessary to ensure that the new institutions can deliver the results we hope to achieve. This is also necessary to make Madaaris aspirational. To test if our Madaaris are aspirational (in case you have any doubts) ask one of your children if they would like to leave their school and join any Madrassa in India and you will have the answer. This must change. The image problem that Madaaris have reflects also on their graduates and explains the lack of respect that Madrassa graduates have in Muslim society.

The big question is, ‘How much longer do we want to continue with this?’ This question must be answered first and most importantly by those who fund Madrassas. It is they who must drive the change. It is they who will be questioned by Allahﷻ and recorded in history for what they did or failed to do. Change is the result of the actions of those who pay for it. It is time that we focused on what happens to our donations and seek to make that most beneficial for the community because it is only quality that pleases Allahﷻ.

What must be done?

I have tried to list some broad changes that need to be introduced urgently if we are interested in ensuring that our money is spent in a beneficial manner to achieve our aims of serving the needs of Islam and Muslims.

A Central Madrassa Board must be created to ensure the following:

  1. All Madrassa teachers must be qualified to teach and have a degree in education
  2. Infrastructure must conform to a standard and must be inspected periodically
  3. Corporal punishment must be banned and severely punishable if practiced
  4. Centralized curriculum, syllabus and examination system
  5. Centralized management of funds by the Madrassa Board
  6. Transparency in all matters and merit, the only consideration

I have not attempted to suggest a complete curriculum and syllabus for Madaaris because before anything can be suggested it is essential for the institutions to feel the need and to define their goal. Currently they don’t have any goal apart from getting donations. The fact that their graduates emerge in society, unfit and incapable of dealing with it, much less provide leadership, leaves them unmoved. Until that changes and until they feel the need to change, no change is possible.

Despite all of the above, if donors decide that it is time to question what happens to their donations and if they are getting value for them; and if they are willing to take the pain to bring about change, it can be done.

I believe it is essential to change ourselves before change is forced upon us from outside.