Monday, October 27

Sufi Music of Our Times

From the diary of an occasional singer

Madan Gopal Singh

Jis tan laggeya ishq kamaal/Naache besur te betaal
(The body touched by the wondrous love/ Dances out of rhythm, out of note)
– Baba Bulleh Shah

I begin with a rather uneventful narration. This narration, in my view, has a certain bearing on the purpose of this short introductory essay on the unwritten polemic that surrounds the Sufi music of the subcontinent.
About a year ago I was invited to address a press conference as part of a panel comprising mostly middle-rung musicians. The occasion was the announcement of an ambitious project by a well-known record label in which I was to feature as a singer of Sufi verses. I was a bit surprised when the organisers presented me to the press as a Sufi singer. I had always maintained that a Sufi singer was a separate and in today’s context possibly a non-existent category. I was a mere crooner drawing liberally from the rich and all-inclusive heritage of Sufi poetry and music and redeploying it with a clear political edge within the space of cultural activism.
Whereas the distinction was extremely important to me for the kind of work I did, the organisers did not feel the need to endorse my sense of academic precision. For them perhaps this distinction was far too refined, far too rarefied for the lay person to appreciate. They had little problem therefore in sacrificing my pedantic concern at the altar of common sense where any singer of Sufi verses was by implication a Sufi. What made me eminently suitable, I was reassured with touching candour by another musician on the podium, was the aural charm I exuded because of my flowing grey beard and perennially pensive eyes. I did not quite know whether the comment was meant to genuinely assuage the anxieties I had acquired as a somewhat reluctant scholar of Sufism or was contrived to quite simply pull my leg. Nonetheless, I was left feeling somewhat apprehensively happy.
My own little passage as a singer of Sufi verses had not only been fortuitous but also, what seems like a cultural paradox, quite wilfully eclectic.
My formative years, like most other children in the refugee settlement where I grew up, were full of community pageants. Depending upon the social scale on which these events unfolded, they could be both intimate and impersonal. Some of these spectacles were woven around the rites of passage and would always be accompanied by overpowering music. The larger community ceremonies were invariably held at gurdwaras and were always a great learning experience for at least some of us who nurtured visions of being able to perform musically some day. The Gurdwara Kirtan Durbars and the Jor Melas on the one hand, and the darkened film theatres and the radio on the other, held us enthralled.
These were songs of undying hope and deep despair; of unquestioning surrender and exuberant challenge; of mystical romance and the material desire to create, construct and shape a world around you. As one approached the threshold of youthful maturity, the lure of popular music from the West proved nearly catalytic in both its socially critical and joyously romantic registers. My mother’s harmonium with a double German reed was the next fetish object. My father sang songs of KL Sehgal – always standing, trying to catch an invisible something – an emotion, an idea, a time gone by. We children were held captive.
In the midst of all this, to borrow a poetic phrase from Neruda, the Sufi music touched us…
Each summer we spent a part of our vacation at our maternal grandparents’ crumbling house in Amritsar. It had dark unused corridors and passages where light barely peeked through the sturdy iron mesh woven firmly into each floor. The frozen darkness of the house was broken by the sound of a radio set that had been mysteriously installed in that haunted mansion to keep us, the little visitors from Delhi, pleased.
We would switch it on the moment the elders left for work. This was a way of overcoming our fear of the fug of a hoary past that surrounded us almost oppressively. We were beginning to confidently connect to a world out there – a new world where we hoped to live some day. Even the squeaky radio frequencies excited our imagination. We could see continents and seas beyond borders beckoning us. We could also see the home our parents had left behind in Lahore, barely 30 miles away from Amritsar – land now shut off by a political divide. Glued to the Lahore station of Radio Pakistan, we would hear Allama Iqbal’s hamd: Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua Banke Tamanna Meri (A fervent wish keeps coming to my lips) on the children’s programme and be deeply moved. This was an amazing hamd – secular, warm and compassionate. Much later in our lives were we to appreciate why this hamd was a popular morning prayer at most schools before partition…
All this had changed in the schools that had come up after 1947. I went to two such schools – a Nagar Nigam school run by the local municipal body at first and a Khalsa school run by the Gurdwara Board later – in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The prayers had now become a lot more strident and avowedly aggressive, doling out unabashed myths of religious superiority. Special moral instruction classes were assigned where the instructors wove hysterical tales of gory heroism, whipping up anti-Muslim sentiments.
This was also the period when the Muslim socials had virtually disappeared from the film scene and the use of Urdu in mainstream Hindi cinema was beginning to be a lot more restrictive and controlled. Nehru – the chacha we so fondly looked up to – had suffered a paralytic stroke in the wake of the war with China in 1962. His ailment, in retrospect, appears like a catalytic metaphor of a major transition that was beginning to overtake the direction in which India was now headed. The pristine dream of India as one family, one community – Bapu (Gandhi), Chacha (Nehru), Sardar (Patel), Maulana (Azad), Gurudev (Tagore) – was beginning to wither. We had quite clearly succeeded the Midnight’s Children in much the same way as Shammi Kapoor’s ‘yahoo’ had succeeded Dev Anand’s adventure through India as a joyous discovery made along multiply connected highways. The IPTA songs had dried up. The Communist Party had vertically split. Manoj Kumar’s developmental cinema of aggressive self-assertion was waiting to happen. As indeed were the first Samyukta Vidhayak Dal government, the militant Left, the agitations for linguistic and regional identity, the famines… What’s more, India was getting sucked into a decade of wars with Pakistan.
In the midst of all this turmoil, the hamd by Allama Iqbal stood out as a secular reaffirmation of human dignity.
During these times of social repair and reconstruction we would occasionally come across a teacher or two who carried a nostalgic longing for the lost utopia into their pedagogic engagements. There was also a large crop of poets, artists and performers who fearlessly espoused a vision of cultural plurality even in the midst of those times of despair. The India of the late 1950s and early 1960s was, in a paradoxical sense, a vibrant space for much of the displaced and homeless creativity.
Amritsar to us was like getting close to that mythical home. It was there in the early 1960s that I heard for the first time a qawwali that was to haunt me for a long, long while.
This qawwali was written by Sahir Ludhianvi for Barsaat Ki Raat (1960) and had an entire community of singers, from the galactic Lata and Rafi to the marginal SD Batish to Sudha Malhotra, participating in the true spirit of the Sufi zikr. This song was for the most part a mesmerising incantation in praise of ishq that seemed to go on and on. As a young and impressionable child I felt intuitively drawn towards its heady beat. A little later, as a pubescent youth I began responding to its thematic lure. Its use of takraar and the act of tying the girah were not merely saturated and resonant but profoundly assertive in a creatively materialist sense. What’s more, the poem was unambiguously polemical and unbelievably rich in its range of references. A significant body of the Sufi heritage of Punjab seemed to have been seamlessly embedded in this song of radical connectivity. This wondrous composition self-consciously eschewed inducing a state of wajd and thus succeeded in keeping its political edge alive and sharp and yet, unlike the Brechtian technique of alienation, it did not shy away from being emotionally excessive.
Sahir had always been taken up with the idea of homelessness in both its celebrative and darker shades…
Unfortunately for us, the metaphor of homelessness has become a dreaded reality driven by a brazen and murderously communal politics. In such times of deep political crises and existential anxiety Sahir’s invocation of this intrepid and secular Sufi tradition shows us the way. When we at SAHMAT revisited the Sufi-Bhakti tradition in the wake of LK Advani’s communally explosive Rath Yatra our cultural intervention was marked not only by the deeply impassioned and persuasive intent of the songs but also by the profoundly liberating influence they had on the performing artists themselves.
They performed with deep personal conviction and eventually secured these songs forever in the secular space beyond the restrictive confines of overt religiosity. Years later, when Rabbi Shergill sang Bulla Ki Jaana Maen Kaun, we could clearly see the formation of a new cultural persona rejecting identity politics without ever lapsing into a mode of surrender. This was a joyous affirmation of a new selfhood. In one fell swoop we witnessed the Sufi song move beyond the glorified capitulation of the self to an imagined Ultimate Subject.
To return to the press conference with which I began, immediately after I was introduced as a Sufi singer there was yet another, totally unexpected and far bigger shock in store for me. Present in our midst was the young and highly talented sarangi player, Kamal Sabri, with whom I had worked closely for a while and performed in India and Pakistan. In his youthful exuberance, he dropped a virtual bombshell by questioning the separate categorisation of Sufi music as a full-fledged genre worthy of inclusion within the project. He was very emphatic about this, averring that there was no such thing as Sufi music. He maintained that it had no tangible or formalised existence as distinct from other generically identified forms of Indian music. The only thing Sufi about what was touted as Sufi music, in his view, was the Sufiana kalaam (mystical poetry).
The entire heritage of what we had been given to believe was Sufi music seemed to come crumbling down. It was not easy to dismiss the young musician’s premise lightly. Not only was he a gharanedar musician (of the gharana), his family had close links with the Sabria silsila (order). Besides, his family had been very close to the well-known ethnomusicologist, Regula Burkhardt Qureshi, whose work on the Sufi music of India and Pakistan continued to draw unflinching admiration from the cognoscenti.
Within the space of an hour I was made to go through a crisis that was both canonically and existentially crucial to my own somewhat restricted engagement with music. What am I? A Sufi? A singing-masquerade? What have I been singing all these years? If Sufi music did not exist at all then what did I hear when I heard what people received and feted as Sufi music? How would I now reclassify the names of Mian Abu Bakar, Hazrat Amir Khusrau, the Qawwal Bachche; the singing of Ustad Fateh Ali, Mubarak Ali, Aziz Mian, Ustad Jaafar Hussain, Sher Ali, Mehr Ali, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali, Allan Faqir, Alim and Farghana Qasimov, Shajarian, Shahram Nazeri, Tufail Niazi, Abida Parveen, Saeen Zahoor; and the list could go on and on.
If this press conference brought about a temporary disquiet in my being about the nature of Sufi music and the direction in which it had grown, there was a positive fallout as well. It made me think about Sufi music beyond generic confines. I had always believed that in its eclectic energy Sufi music had drawn and never stopped drawing liberally from diverse sources. Not that Sufi music was generically non-existent. It made me realise that Sufi music has in fact never been exclusively about music. Perhaps no other music can be, in the sense in which Indian classical music has been. Earlier it was driven by an etiquette of spirituality and its concomitant rituals; today it is monitored by the cultural industry as a fetish object on the one hand and also espoused by radical cultural activists as a poignant tool of resistance.
A few years ago I was invited to plan a musical soirée around the theme of Sufism for a Delhi-based business tycoon who happened to deal in ship scraps. I must confess to having been deeply fascinated by the image of the gargantuan ships finally reaching their last, albeit temporary, abode. There was something touchingly otherworldly and almost poetic about this transient image of tired ships at the end of their long, dark journeys.
The event I was asked to design was part of an extended wedding ceremony in the family. The venue was to be an exotic fortress-cum-hotel near Alwar. The tycoon’s daughter was getting married and, doting father that he was, he dreamt of the occasion as an effusive gift to his child. For hadn’t she once expressed a desire to be initiated into the Sufi way through the irresistible lure of its music? This was a Punjabi Hindu family with little religious linkage to Sufism. In our part of the world Sufism continued to be perceived mainly as a quaint and spectacular offshoot of Islam.
I had never designed such a function before and definitely not for money. I considered myself to be an occasional cultural activist who took pride in singing free of charge for progressive and secular causes. Such a position has always seemed to me to be creatively closer to the Sufi spirit and I felt somewhat purified and liberated after every concert. I had kept judiciously away from the moneybags and it was only with extreme reluctance that I was persuaded to accompany my painter friend, Manjeet Bawa, to liven up the insulated penthouses of the rich and famous with Sufi melodies and verses. Sufi music, as I understood it, was originally meant to be a community experience where the rich and the poor would mingle freely and possibly without a sense of divisive socio-economic hierarchy. It was meant to be performed in a spiritually well-defined space for khalq-e-khuda (people of god) gratis.
In retrospect, I look back and wonder if a Sufi concert of the kind I had designed was not in effect a contradiction in terms. In a traditional Sufi congregation the performing musicians and devout followers were supposed to be bound together in a highly coded etiquette of listening and spiritual bonding. None of this was likely to be in evidence during the wedding pageant wherein the Sufi verses and melodies I had chosen would be happily subsumed. And this was only a minuscule part of the various ways in which I thought the very nature of Sufi performances was beginning to irreversibly change.
Now the entire idea of Sufism in general and Sufi music in particular was changing irreversibly. It was not only changing around me but in my own case as a performer through me. I did not profess to be a Sufi. I was, after all, not a Muslim. To make matters worse, I was a non-practising Sikh and a near atheist. I was fascinated by Sufi music and had read detailed accounts of the poets and the silsilas they represented. I had visited many Sufi shrines and had been deeply moved by a large body of Sufi poetry and music. But I was not a Sufi. Over a period of time I had somehow convinced myself of the improbability of the existence of a practising Sufi. The age of fakirs had withered and the dervishes had lost all their sanguine spirit to the whirling traps of unending ritual.
Since my name had been recommended by the then reigning deity of Indian popular music, with whom I had enjoyed working and for whom I had, and still have, a deep personal regard, I accepted the responsibility without much fuss. To my great joy I subsequently discovered that the rich tycoon for whom I was to design the evening was a man of impeccable taste and no little learning. His daughter was doing her doctoral research at Oxford and apart from being superaffluent the family was academically almost awe-inspiring. The bridegroom was to fly in from Dubai where he worked as a senior executive in a multinational sports company. The audience included the rich and famous: poets, painters, politicians, power brokers, professors, princes… and sundry other shades of prominence. In the midst of this diverse audience, I, once a film scholar and occasional cultural activist, now stood nervously as a learned mirasi (minstrel) whose scholarship was acknowledged for whatever it was more out of politeness than genuine conviction.
Our first goal was to identify musicians to the mutual satisfaction of all. This did not prove to be difficult even if our host insisted on the inclusion of a group of popular qawwals on the recommendation of the reigning deity who had abstained from all deliberations thus far. I had over a period of time developed fairly strong views on the quality of music produced by the Indian qawwals and did not find their singing either traditionally credible or musically convincing. After some persuasion our sponsor agreed to drop the qawwals and settled on the Mangniars I had proposed instead.
I had lined up the finest singers from among the Mangniars, a tribe of traditional Muslim singers from the sleepy deserts of Rajasthan. The great advantage of inviting these singer-musicians was, I believed, their repertoire which cut across linguistic and cultural barriers with amazing ease. They could sing in six different linguistic registers without ever sounding unconvincing. This group of extraordinary musicians usually sang lilting melodies pertaining to Hindu rites of passage, of changing seasons, of rare pastoral landscapes, lonesome trees and camels in vast deserts, of myriad Hindu gods and goddesses. These musicians still saw themselves as belonging to the jajmani system and their patrons happened to be largely Hindus who had fallen on bad times.
On that particular day however the Mangniars were going to sing haunting melodies that they offered gratis at the mazars of their pirs and murshids for a gathering of believers who were willing to shed the inhibitions of the self and pass into a state of trance. As for my musicians, they happened to be professionals with a relatively lesser degree of spiritual involvement in the enterprise of Sufism. My own position within this musical show was that of a lec-dem performer – singing a little, explaining a lot.
I could clearly see through my own agency how in recent years Sufi music had moved decisively away from its traditional performative spaces or base. The khanqahs and the dargahs had receded in a dreamy haze. The new exponents of Sufi music had emerged from chaotically diverse backgrounds of cultural activism, exciting new scholarship, religious fluidity, transgressions and musical lineage, if any. Some of these singers had emerged over a period of time with more than moderate success as the embodiments of lifestyle statements that go far beyond conventional modes of singing, musical adaa (style), elan or etiquette. It seemed to extend into the domain of haute couture – a certain styling of the look with an appropriately randomised vocabulary; cross-continental diaspora, travelling histories and global tourism; new technologies of communication and the parasitic cultural industry.
In another sense, its creative reach had been stretched and had begun to extend well beyond the ambit of Islam or even what had been understood as Sufism in the popular perception. The very nature of Sufi music as such stood radically changed. In the light of these changes a series of questions were bound to arise even as this cultural shift ushered in completely new and unexpected possibilities.
Perhaps the single most important fallout of this emergent phenomenon is that more and more people understand what they do of Sufism through what they receive as Sufi music. There is a clearer desire to reinstall Sufi music beyond the pale of religion, at times paradoxically within modes of cloned religiosity. In other words, there is perhaps a problematic but celebrative conflation of Sufi music with the idea of Sufism as imagined and experienced by people across linguistic, cultural and religious boundaries.
With this change, vis-à-vis social reorganisations themselves assimilating the vestigial, the very idea of Sufism becomes conflated almost exclusively with a mode of singing. How does one relocate and readdress the very question of Sufism as distinct from what is termed as Sufi music? Is there a form of music quintessentially and non-negotiably Sufi in nature? What is the status of the verses and melodies identified with the long-established conventions of Sufism within the new order of things?
Conversely, how has the very idea of music changed in view of its growing dissociation from its spiritual history and the centres of spirituality in which it flourished and developed for almost a thousand years? What role have the new technologies of communication – the talkies, the wireless, the satellite channels and the Internet – played in not only disseminating Sufi music but also in its integration within the growing idea of cultural industry? How have these technologies helped produce syncretic and secular communities of new consumer recipients? These are some of the questions that both the cultural activist and the performing artist would need to address.
(Madan Gopal Singh is a musician, film historian and cultural activist)

Sunday, October 5

Punjab, That Was

The railway at Rawalpindi, Punjab, 1929
Kojhak railway tunnel, Lahore, 1896-1897

Irrigation Subordinates and Sutlej boatman at work, 1903

Shalimar Gardens, Lahore, 1926

On display in 'Punjab: Moving Journeys exhibition' by Royal Geographical Society.

Thursday, September 4

Search for culture that existed before Sikhism

Des Raj Kali’s new novel ‘Parneshwari’, challenging the c u l t u r a l hegemonies of Sikh religion, is making waves drawing comparisons with the likes of Hemingway and Kafka, writes Vikram Jit Singh in The Times of India

Punjab’s culture is certainly not agrarian, as non-Punjabi jest would have one believe. It imbibes a whole tradition of folk mores — Bhangra, gurpurab, saag-makki di roti and so much more. In Parneshwari, award winning novelist, journalist and activist Des Raj Kali peeks into the Dalit community of yore, seeking to lend them an identity when the contemporary social realities fail to respond to their aspirations. An abstract fiction, Kali’s work is rooted in P u n j ab ’s legacy of Sufism and Buddhism and challenges the c u l t u r a l hegemonies of Sikh religion. That the writer seeks no quarter for his community is apparent when he seeks to subvert the enslaving hegemonies of economics and politics that derive sustenance from a dominant and globalising culture. The protagonist, Parha, takes the reader on a journey of cultural and psychological mindscapes. Not only is the book an important part of the growing non-Jat Sikh writing tradition, it also marks a shift in the cultural location of Punjabi writing — from a village to mofussil town. “Kali’s novel is not derived from experience. It is a fiction of thought. Its abstract form reminds one of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Each sentence is an episode in itself. The novelist creates his own style of writing. One has to discard the old practises of reading Punjabi literature when one reads Kali. Parneshwari is clearly the work of a mind dissatisfied with contemporary Punjabi literature. I would venture to say that Kali is a Franz Kafka of Punjabi. His abstract fiction means that he does not always correlate everything in his book, but the work is profound. If Kali’s restless outpourings are not understood, he may turn into a recluse. If recognised for their worth, he has a very bright future,” claims Dr Sarbjit Singh, general secretary of Kendriya Punjab Lekhak Sabha and a noted novelist. “Unlike the effervescence of Dalit literature in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Dalit writings in Punjab are not confrontationist. This is so because of the unique context the state, where Sikhism has ensured that the unspeakable atrocities heaped on Dalits elsewhere are not repeated. However, despite its egalitarian nature, social discriminations remain and Dalits continue to harbour multiple grievances. Kali’s third novel searches for the composite culture that existed before the advent of Sikhism and was rooted in Sufi/Buddhist traditions, when Dalits converted to Sufism, Buddhism and Islam to escape discrimination,” claims Dr Man Mohan, a noted poet and Punjabi critic.

Friday, August 29


Harkishan Singh Surjeet after winning the Phillaur constituency of East Punjab assembly. February 1967. Pic: Amarjit Chandan

Tuesday, July 22

Singh Speaks

Here follows Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reply to trust vote motion which you could not listen to
The Leader of Opposition, Shri L.K. Advani has chosen to use all manner of abusive objectives to describe my performance. He has described me as the weakest Prime Minister, a nikamma PM, and of having devalued the office of PM. To fulfill his ambitions, he has made at least three attempts to topple our government. But on each occasion his astrologers have misled him. This pattern, I am sure, will be repeated today. At his ripe old age, I do not expect Shri Advani to change his thinking. But for his sake and India’s sake, I urge him at least to change his astrologers so that he gets more accurate predictions of things to come. As for Shri Advani’s various charges, I do not wish to waste the time of the House in rebutting them. All I can say is that before leveling charges of incompetence on others, Shri Advani should do some introspection. Can our nation forgive a Home Minister who slept when the terrorists were knocking at the doors of our Parliament? Can our nation forgive a person who single handedly provided the inspiration for the destruction of the Babri Masjid with all the terrible consequences that followed? To atone for his sins, he suddenly decided to visit Pakistan and there he discovered new virtues in Mr. Jinnah. Alas, his own party and his mentors in the RSS disowned him on this issue. Can our nation approve the conduct of a Home Minister who was sleeping while Gujarat was burning leading to the loss of thousands of innocent lives? Our friends in the Left Front should ponder over the company they are forced to keep because of miscalculations by their General Secretary.
As for my conduct, it is for this august House and the people of India to judge. All I can say is that in all these years that I have been in office, whether as Finance Minister or Prime Minister, I have felt it as a sacred obligation to use the levers of power as a societal trust to be used for transforming our economy and polity, so that we can get rid of poverty, ignorance and disease which still afflict millions of our people. This is a long and arduous journey. But every step taken in this direction can make a difference. And that is what we have sought to do in the last four years. How far we have succeeded is something I leave to the judgement of the people of India. When I look at the composition of the opportunistic group opposed to us, it is clear to me that the clash today is between two alternative visions of India’s future. The one vision represented by the UPA and our allies seeks to project India as a self confident and united nation moving forward to gain its rightful place in the comity of nations, making full use of the opportunities offered by a globalised world, operating on the frontiers of modern science and technology and using modern science and technology as important instruments of national economic and social development. The opposite vision is of a motley crowd opposed to us who have come together to share the spoils of office to promote their sectional, sectarian and parochial interests. Our Left colleagues should tell us whether Shri L.K. Advani is acceptable to them as a Prime Ministerial candidate. Shri L.K. Advani should enlighten us if he will step aside as Prime Ministerial candidate of the opposition in favour of the choice of UNPA. They should take the country into confidence on this important issue. I have already stated in my opening remarks that the House has been dragged into this debate unnecessarily. I wish our attention had not been diverted from some priority areas of national concern. These priorities are:
(1) Tackling the imported inflation caused by steep increase in oil prices. Our effort is to control inflation without hurting the rate of growth and employment. (2) To revitalize agriculture. We have decisively reversed the declining trend of investment and resource flow in agriculture. The Finance Minister has dealt with the measures we have taken in this regard. We have achieved a record foodgrain production of 231 million tones. But we need to redouble our efforts to improve agricultural productivity. (3) To improve the effectiveness of our flagship pro poor programmes such as National Rural Employment Programme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Nation-wide Mid day meal programme, Bharat Nirman to improve the quality of rural infrastructure of roads, electricity, safe drinking water, sanitation, irrigation, National Rural Health Mission and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. These programmes are yielding solid results. But a great deal more needs to be done to improve the quality of implementation. (4) We have initiated a major thrust in expanding higher education. The objective is to expand the gross enrolment ratio in higher education from 11.6 per cent to 15 per cent by the end of the 11th Plan and to 21per cent by the end of 12th Plan. To meet these goals, we have an ambitious programme which seeks to create 30 new universities, of which 14 will be world class, 8 new IITs, 7 new IIMs, 20 new IIITs, 5 new IISERs, 2 Schools of planning and Architecture, 10 NITs, 373 new degree colleges and 1000 new polytechnics. And these are not just plans. Three new IISERs are already operational and the remaining two will become operational from the 2008-09 academic session. Two SPAs will be starting this year. Six of the new IITs start their classes this year. The establishment of the new universities is at an advanced stage of planning.
(5) A nation wide Skill Development Programme and the enactment of the Right to Education Act, (6) Approval by Parliament of the new Rehabilitation and Resettlement policy and enactment of legislation to provide social security benefits to workers in the unorganized sector. (7) The new 15 Point Programme for Minorities, the effective implementation of empowerment programmes for the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, paying particular emphasis on implementation of Land Rights for the tribals. (8) Equally important is the effective implementation of the Right to Information Act to impart utmost transparency to processes of governance. The Administrative Reforms Commission has made valuable suggestions to streamline the functioning of our public administration. (9) To deal firmly with terrorist elements, left wing extremism and communal elements that are attempting to undermine the security and stability of the country. We have been and will continue to vigorously pursue investigations in the major terrorist incidents that have taken place. Charge-sheets have been filed in almost all the cases. Our intelligence agencies and security forces are doing an excellent job in very difficult circumstances. They need our full support. We will take all possible steps to streamline their functioning and strengthen their effectiveness.
Considerable work has been done in all these areas but debates like the one we are having detract our attention from attending to these essential programmes and remaining items on our agenda. All the same, we will redouble our efforts to attend to these areas of priority concerns. I say in all sincerity that this session and debate was unnecessary because I have said on several occasions that our nuclear agreement after being endorsed by the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group would be submitted to this august House for expressing its view. All I had asked our Left colleagues was : please allow us to go through the negotiating process and I will come to Parliament before operationalising the nuclear agreement. This simple courtesy which is essential for orderly functioning of any Government worth the name, particularly with regard to the conduct of foreign policy, they were not willing to grant me. They wanted a veto over every single step of negotiations which is not acceptable. They wanted me to behave as their bonded slave. The nuclear agreement may not have been mentioned in the Common Minimum Programme. However, there was an explicit mention of the need to develop closer relations with the USA but without sacrificing our independent foreign policy. The Congress Election Manifesto had explicitly referred to the need for strategic engagement with the USA and other great powers such as Russia. In 1991, while presenting the Budget for 1991-92, as Finance Minister, I had stated : No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come. I had then suggested to this august House that the emergence of India as a major global power was an idea whose time had come.
Carrying forward the process started by Shri Rajiv Gandhi of preparing India for the 21st century, I outlined a far reaching programme of economic reform whose fruits are now visible to every objective person. Both the Left and the BJP had then opposed the reform. Both had said we had mortgaged the economy to America and that we would bring back the East India Company. Subsequently both these parties have had a hand at running the Government. None of these parties have reversed the direction of economic policy laid down by the Congress Party in 1991. The moral of the story is that political parties should be judged not by what they say while in opposition but by what they do when entrusted with the responsibilities of power. I am convinced that despite their opportunistic opposition to the nuclear agreement, history will compliment the UPA Government for having taken another giant step forward to lead India to become a major power centre of the evolving global economy. Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of using atomic energy as a major instrument of development will become a living reality. What is the nuclear agreement about? It is all about widening our development options, promoting energy security in a manner which will not hurt our precious environment and which will not contribute to pollution and global warming. India needs to grow at the rate of at least ten per cent per annum to get rid of chronic poverty, ignorance and disease which still afflict millions of our people. A basic requirement for achieving this order of growth is the availability of energy, particularly electricity. We need increasing quantities of electricity to support our agriculture, industry and to give comfort to our householders. The generation of electricity has to grow at an annual rate of 8 to 10 per cent.
Now, hydro-carbons are one source of generating power and for meeting our energy requirements. But our production of hydro-carbons both of oil and gas is far short of our growing requirements. We are heavily dependent on imports. We all know the uncertainty of supplies and of prices of imported hydro-carbons. We have to diversify our sources of energy supply. We have large reserves of coal but even these are inadequate to meet all our needs by 2050. But more use of coal will have an adverse impact on pollution and climate. We can develop hydro-power and we must. But many of these projects hurt the environment and displace large number of people. We must develop renewable sources of energy particularly solar energy. But we must also make full use of atomic energy which is a clean environment friendly source of energy. All over the world, there is growing realization of the importance of atomic energy to meet the challenge of energy security and climate change. India’s atomic scientists and technologists are world class. They have developed nuclear energy capacities despite heavy odds. But there are handicaps which have adversely affected our atomic energy programme. First of all, we have inadequate production of uranium. Second, the quality of our uranium resources is not comparable to those of other producers.Third, after the Pokharan nuclear test of 1974 and 1998 the outside world has imposed embargo on trade with India in nuclear materials, nuclear equipment and nuclear technology. As a result, our nuclear energy programme has suffered. Some twenty years ago, the Atomic Energy Commission had laid down a target of 10000 MW of electricity generation by the end of the twentieth century. Today, in 2008 our capacity is about 4000 MW and due to shortage of uranium many of these plants are operating at much below their capacity. The nuclear agreement that we wish to negotiate will end India’s nuclear isolation, nuclear apartheid and enable us to take advantage of international trade in nuclear materials, technologies and equipment. It will open up new opportunities for trade in dual use high technologies opening up new pathways to accelerate industrialization of our country. Given the excellent quality of our nuclear scientists and technologists, I have reasons to believe that in a reasonably short period of time, India would emerge as an important exporter of nuclear technologies, and equipment for civilian purposes.
When I say this I am reminded of the visionary leadership of Shri Rajiv Gandhi who was a strong champion of computerization and use of information technologies for nation building. At that time, many people laughed at this idea. Today, information technology and software is a sun-rise industry with an annual turnover soon approaching 50 billion US dollars. I venture to think that our atomic energy industry will play a similar role in the transformation of India’s economy. The essence of the matter is that the agreements that we negotiate with USA, Russia, France and other nuclear countries will enable us to enter into international trade for civilian use without any interference with our strategic nuclear programme. The strategic programme will continue to be developed at an autonomous pace determined solely by our own security perceptions. We have not and we will not accept any outside interference or monitoring or supervision of our strategic programme. Our strategic autonomy will never be compromised. We are willing to look at possible amendments to our Atomic Energy Act to reinforce our solemn commitment that our strategic autonomy will never be compromised. I confirm that there is nothing in these agreements which prevents us from further nuclear tests if warranted by our national security concerns. All that we are committed to is a voluntary moratorium on further testing. Thus the nuclear agreements will not in any way affect our strategic autonomy. The cooperation that the international community is now willing to extend to us for trade in nuclear materials, technologies and equipment for civilian use will be available to us without signing the NPT or the CTBT.
This I believe is a measure of the respect that the world at large has for India, its people and their capabilities and our prospects to emerge as a major engine of growth for the world economy. I have often said that today there are no international constraints on India’s development. The world marvels at our ability to seek our social and economic salvation in the framework of a functioning democracy committed to the rule of law and respect for fundamental human freedoms. The world wants India to succeed. The obstacles we face are at home, particularly in our processes of domestic governance. I wish to remind the House that in 1998 when the Pokharan II tests were undertaken, the Group of Eight leading developed countries had passed a harsh resolution condemning India and called upon India to sign the NPT and CTBT. Today, at the Hokkaido meeting of the G-8 held recently in Japan, the Chairman’s summary has welcomed cooperation in civilian nuclear energy between India and the international community. This is a measure of the sea change in the perceptions of the international community our trading with India for civilian nuclear energy purposes that has come about in less than ten years.
Our critics falsely accuse us, that in signing these agreements, we have surrendered the independence of foreign policy and made it subservient to US interests. In this context, I wish to point out that the cooperation in civil nuclear matters that we seek is not confined to the USA. Change in the NSG guidelines would be a passport to trade with 45 members of the Nuclear Supplier Group which includes Russia, France, and many other countries. We appreciate the fact that the US has taken the lead in promoting cooperation with India for nuclear energy for civilian use. Without US initiative, India’s case for approval by the IAEA or the Nuclear Suppliers Group would not have moved forward. But this does not mean that there is any explicit or implicit constraint on India to pursue an independent foreign policy determined by our own perceptions of our enlightened national interest. Some people are spreading the rumours that there are some secret or hidden agreements over and above the documents made public. I wish to state categorically that there are no secret or hidden documents other than the 123 agreement, the Separation Plan and the draft of the safeguard agreement with the IAEA. It has also been alleged that the Hyde Act will affect India’s ability to pursue an independent foreign policy. The Hyde Act does exist and it provides the US administration the authorization to enter into civil nuclear cooperation with India without insistence on full scope safeguards and without signing of the NPT. There are some prescriptive clauses but they cannot and they will not be allowed to affect in any way the conduct of our foreign policy. Our commitment is to what has been agreed in the 123 Agreement. There is nothing in this Agreement which will affect our strategic autonomy or our ability to pursue an independent foreign policy. I state categorically that our foreign policy, will at all times be determined by our own assessment of our national interest. This has been true in the past and will be true in future regarding our relations with big powers as well as with our neighbours in West Asia, notably Iran, Iraq, Palestine and the Gulf countries. We have differed with the USA on their intervention in Iraq. I had explicitly stated at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC in July 2005 that intervention in Iraq was a big mistake. With regard to Iran, our advice has been in favour of moderation and we would like that the issues relating to Iran’s nuclear programme which have emerged should be resolved through dialogue and discussions in the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
I should also inform the House that our relations with the Arab world are very good. Two years ago, His Majesty, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was the Chief Guest at our Republic Day. More recently, we have played host to the President of Iran, President of Syria, the King of Jordan, the Emir of Qatar and the Emir of Kuwait. With all these countries we have historic civilisational and cultural links which we are keen to further develop to our mutual benefit. Today, we have strategic relationship with all major powers including USA, Russia, France, UK, Germany, Japan, China, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa. We are Forging new partnerships with countries of East Asia, South East Asia and Africa. CONCLUSION The Management and governance of the world’s largest, most diverse and most vibrant democracy is the greatest challenge any person can be entrusted with, in this world. It has been my good fortune that I was entrusted with this challenge over four years ago. I thank with all sincerity the Chairperson of the UPA, the leaders of the Constituent Parties of the UPA and every member of my Party for the faith and trust they reposed in me. I once again recall with gratitude the guidance and support I have received from Shri Jyoti Basu and Sardar Harkishen Singh Surjeet. I have often said that I am a politician by accident. I have held many diverse responsibilities. I have been a teacher, I have been an official of the Government of India, I have been a member of this greatest of Parliaments, but I have never forgotten my life as a young boy in a distant village. Every day that I have been Prime Minister of India I have tried to remember that the first ten years of my life were spent in a village with no drinking water supply, no electricity, no hospital, no roads and nothing that we today associate with modern living. I had to walk miles to school, I had to study in the dim light of a kerosene oil lamp. This nation gave me the opportunity to ensure that such would not be the life of our children in the foreseeable future.
Sir, my conscience is clear that on every day that I have occupied this high office, I have tried to fulfill the dream of that young boy from that distant village. The greatness of democracy is that we are all birds of passage! We are here today, gone tomorrow! But in the brief time that the people of India entrust us with this responsibility, it is our duty to be honest and sincere in the discharge of these responsibilities. As it is said in our sacred texts, we are responsible for our actions and we must act without coveting the rewards of such action. Whatever I have done in this high office I have done so with a clear conscience and the best interests of my country and our people at heart. I have no other claims to make.

Saturday, May 3

Two Hues of Baisakhi

The pro-Khalistan ideologues abroad are oblivious of the groundswell in their native land of Punjab. But the best way to mute their voices democratically would be to expose them to the situation in the state. Besides, the numerous issues which continue to kindle fires among them need to be addressed, writes Kanwar Sandhu in Hindustan Times

ON BAISAKHI, while has been business as usual in Punjab, it has not been so in North America. In rural Punjab, people have been busy in harvesting operations and their urban brethren in the grip of IPL cricket fever on their television screens. In the border belt of Amritsar, the release of Sarabjit Singh, who is on death row in Pakistan, and the Amritsar (South) bypoll are on top of people's agenda. At the political conferences in Damdama Sahib on occasion of Baisakhi, while the mainline political parties took potshots at each other, proKhalistan elements struggled to attract bare notice. But in the North American cities of Vancouver, Toronto and New York, Baisakhi was an occasion for pro-Khalistan elements to vie for center stage. At the 21st Sikh Day Parade in New York City, several resolutions in favour of Khalistan were passed, besides sloganeering. In Toronto, although the organisers of the Baisakhi Dal parade did not allow the proKhalistan elements to enter a float depicting the horrendous events of 1984 and after, the latter managed to carry a huge "proKhalistan" banner at the head of the parade, which was attended by nearly 50,000 people.
Why the vast difference in attitude? On the soil of Punjab, people have moved on from the era of militancy Abroad, particu . larly in North America, Khalistan continues to whip up passions. This has been so for years, but why? Last year, during the Baisakhi parade in Surrey near Vancouver, Khalistan slogans were raised and the radical ideologues were eulogised. The disparate pulls and pressures have sharply polarised the Punjabi community, including Sikhs in these countries, besides impacting local politics. Since terrorism became a part and parcel of the Khalistan movement in Punjab, raising the separatist bogey could isolate the Sikh community further in North America, where terrorism in any form is abhorred. Politically, like other immigrants, most Sikhs support the Liberal party, which is currently in the Opposition in Canada. While the ruling Conservative Party leaders have been shying away from attending the Baisakhi Day parade, some Opposition MPs did attend it this time. But, in case the polarisation persists, even the Liberal party leaders may stay away from it and the controversies surrounding it.
At home, the unfortunate result is that Punjab, once the land of five rivers, faces yet another chasm of sorts - an ideological one this time. First fractured by Partition and then truncated by the Punjabi Suba agitation, it now finds a sizeable part of its diaspora pulling in a different direc tion. This leaves the land a fertile ground for seeds of discontent to flourish. Unless the two disparate streams in the native and adopted lands are reconciled, the numerous challenges remain un-addressed. Since Khalistan as an issue remains afloat abroad, it is important to introspect on the past in order to move forward. What caused the holocaust of 1984 and after? Was the Congress leadership at the Centre and in the state solely to blame? Did the Shiromani Akali Dal leadership of the time rise to the occasion to stem the rot or did it too take the bait? What role did the community leaders, the media and others play as the situation slumped from one abysmal depth to another? Whether one agrees or not, the fact is that the Khalistan movement did not lead anywhere and only caused unending misery because its foundations were hollow. It was nothing more than an emotive bubble that burst in no time. The community was pushed headlong into it without its basis, ramifications or its contours having been deliberated. Those who continue to hold the banner of separatism need to ask themselves one simple question: are things any different now?
Besides introspection, the political leadership in Punjab should put their weight behind the Union Government to allow the pro-Khalistan elements abroad to visit their native land to see things for themselves. When they realise that the raison d'etre of the war they are waging has already been neutralised at home, they would see the futility of their "struggle" abroad. Of course, some part of the phenomenon abroad is psychological, which is common to many immigrant groups. The Irish Republican Army found ardent supporters in the USA and some of these supporters were descendents of Irish immigrants who had come to the USA in the early 1900s! So is it for many others, who become fastidious when it comes to "things back home". The driving force among them seems to be a reaction against a society where everybody is equal but nobody is important. Besides, the freedom of expression allows them to push even their outlandish agendas, provided they do it within democratic norms. Yet there are lots of people among them who would be realistic enough to see reason.
There is no doubt that one of the issues which continues to kindle the fires at home and abroad is the failure of successive government at the Centre to take those guilty of the Sikh carnage in Delhi and elsewhere to justice. The second issue that continues to rankle is the excesses by the security forces during the violent phase in Punjab. Unfortunately, neither the Congress government of Captain Amarinder Singh nor the SAD-BJP government of Parkash Singh Badal thought it fit to address the issue, which resurfaces every now and then. Besides providing an agenda to the radical elements at home, these issues render most visiting Sikh leaders abroad speechless forcing them to speak their language amidst them.
Pragmatism took the better of the community at home many years ago. It is time the government facilitates the elements abroad also to take a realistic view so that the collective strength is put to use to push not just the developmental agenda but also the wider issues. With the Union Government having set up a fresh Commission to review Centre-State relations, there is a chance once again to push for greater autonomy for states, especially in the light of increasing globalisation. Badal should solicit all-round support, including of the diaspora abroad, to put up a forceful case before the Commission.

Tuesday, January 15

Friends don't die

This is one part of the bloody tale of Khalistan movement that has remained untold. Rahul Pandita recounts, in his blog Sanity Sucks, the armed resistance put up by handful of leftist cadres to terrorists who had become a law unto themselves in Punjab until they were contained at a heavy cost to human lives across the divide

“He was carrying his revolver when they shot him dead.” The old caretaker at the Ghadar Memorial Hall in Jalandhar takes out a blue handkerchief and spreads its content on the table. There is an old spectacles frame and a blood-stained bus ticket, recovered from Darshan Canadian’s shirt pocket.
“The problem with Comrades is that they are very fond of justifying their viewpoint. When the two young men waylaid him, he got into an argument with them instead of taking out his revolver,” an old associate of Canadian tells us. It was on September 25, 1986 when Darshan Canadian was shot dead by Khalistani terrorists.
In Punjab, the wounds have healed more or less. One deadly decade of terrorism has passed since long. Beyond Punjab, people only know of a super cop and a chief minister who finally led the Khalistani dream to its nemesis. But in Punjab, those who actually offered resistance to the movement without being protected by gun-toting policemen, are part of the folklore, much like Bhagat Singh. These are a handful of Comrades, like Darshan Canadian, who laid down their lives fighting religious fundamentalism. These were the men who were armed only with idealism.

In village Talwandi Salem, the mango tree still exists. Sukhwinder Singh Sandhu takes me there. At first, he talks in a matter-of-fact manner. And then his eyes turn wet. Sandhu vividly remembers that sunny morning on March 23, 1988, when he left his cousin Avtaar Singh ‘Paash’ and his friend Hansraj near the mango tree at the family tubewell. “When we heard the gunshots, Paash’s mother thought that the nearby cold storage was on fire. But I knew “saade ghar te aag lagi hai (it’s our house which has been set afire.)”
The most dangerous thing is to be filled with stillness/Not to feel any agony and bear it all/Leaving home for work and from work return home/The most dangerous thing is the death of our dreams… These lines by Paash, considered by many as Punjab’s most influential revolutionary poet is, in a way, a reflection of his combativeness. In the mid-`80s Paash was the cheerleader of resistance against Punjab terrorism.
Through his writings, he had become a festering wound for fundamentalism. From America, where he had shifted in 1985, he took out Anti-47, a magazine that opposed those who supported Khalistan. “In his village, his friends had advised him to go underground since he was on the hitlist of terrorists,” remembers Sukhwinder. But he had refused. It was on that morning in 1988 when acting upon a tip-off, terrorists lay their hands upon Paash and his friend. After being hit by a bullet on his hand, Paash tried to ecsape but fell down near the mango tree. The terrorists pumped an entire burst into his head. Hansraj was also killed nearby. Paash was 38. Fifty-seven years ago, on the same day, Bhagat Singh had achieved

 Not very far from where his brother fell to bullets, Harbans Lal sits in his newly-built bigger home, trying to remember his brother’s journey. “Hansraj was very close to Paash and even in their death they were together,” he says. After Hansraj’s death, the village elders advised him to sell off his land and settle down somewhere else. “But that would have been an insult to Hansraj’s martyrdom,” says Harbans Lal. After his son’s death, their father stopped working in the family fields. In the memory of his late brother, Harbans Lal encouraged his son to become a weightlifter. (“I wanted him to be as physically strong as Hansraj was mentally”).
In retaliation to these killings, their comrades killed a woman and her father in Talwindi Salem. The woman, a supporter of Khalistan, is believed to have passed on information about Paash’s location to his killers.
In Majha area – the worst-affected area during militancy – Harsha Sheena village is the Panjshir of Punjab. Long before Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by two men posing as journalists two days before 9/11, a woman met Hardev Babbu just outside his home.
Babbu and his other comrades had been paying the terrorists back in the same coin – hitting them without waiting for them to attack. In many areas, the fundamentalists would block entry points leading to Hindu households, denying them access to essential commodities like milk and vegetables. But Babbu, a Sikh by birth, would lead his men to break such blockades. It was after a dreaded terrorist, Kuldeep Singh Tolanangal was killed by Babbu’s bullet, that the terrorists decided to annihilate him. But they could not fight back. So they hatched a plan. Posing as a journalist, the woman met Babbu and enticed him to come to Amritsar for an interview. It was there that Babbu was drugged and after being tortured brutally, his head was cut off and hung outside the gurudwara in his village to terrorise his friends. But instead of discouraging people from speaking out against terrorists, such killings motivated men like Tarsem Peter. Four years before Babbu’s barbaric killing, Comrade Baldev Mann was killed by terrorists in Harsha Sheena. “That day, I became a full-time opponent of oppression,” says Peter.

One night, while returning after addressing a public gathering, Peter was stopped by CRPF men. “I told them clearly that I had hidden a revolver under my motorcycle’s seat and that it was meant for self-defence. They let me go,” recalls Peter. Today Peter is the state president of a labour union.
In Lakhan ka Padda village, poet Jaimal Padda was shot dead on March 17, 1988. During the peak of terrorism, Padda would take out processions against Khalistan movement and write against terrorists in his journal. For his departed comrades, he had written a poem: Mitran di yaad nayo bhulni (The memory of friends won’t fade away). Long after he is gone, Padda is still remembered by his friends. It is not important to raise statues in memory. Carrying forward his work is how he is being kept alive.
Years after the Khalistan movement withered away, dirty politics has begun once again. Sikh fundamentalist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s portrait has been installed at the SGPC museum in Amritsar. How do those who opposed the idea of Khalistan tooth and nail see it? “The whole politics of Punjab is based on such bogus issues; they are trying to divert peoples’ attention from problems like unemployment, etc.,” says writer Balbir Parwana. “Everything has been commodified,” says Peter. “Recently I saw 10-12 girls in a village bus. All of them wore air-hostess uniforms and wanted to make it big. But the problem is that the so-called university they go to operates from a single room,” he adds. “Some of us frequent a food-stall that sells fish fry. But this evening we couldn’t have it. A prominent politician from Punjab is staying at Radisson Hotel here and he has ordered the entire stock of fish for his chamchas and himself,” another Comrade tells us in Jalandhar.
As the night approaches, I am led to an ahaata (open-air bar) for a few rounds of vodka by some of the Comrades. After three rounds, one Comrade slurringly tells us: “You know, Yudhishtir’s (the eldest of Pandava brothers) chariot used to run two inches above ground since he only used to speak the truth. But after his role in Ashwathama’s death, his chariot hit the ground. If you really ask me, the chariots of today’s politicians have got stuck in the ground since they lie so much.”
Next morning, in Harsha Sheena, Hardev Babbu’s closest friend, Surjit Sheena is sitting outside the CPI-ML office. From the walls, the departed comrades stare back. “There have been some cases recently where postgraduate boys were involved in chain-snatching since there are no jobs,” he rues. I remain silent. After a pause, I ask him, “Do you still remember Comrade Babbu?” He looks at me, and then at Babbu’s picture. There is another pause and then he speaks: “Friends don’t die.”