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Many years ago, in the 1970’s I remember seeing a Russian tractor. India used to have a bilateral trade agreement with the USSR by which we bought all kinds of goods from Russia and paid for them in Indian Rupees, whereby we were able to conserve our meagre foreign exchange. You can read more about that agreement here http://www.commonlii.org/in/other/treaties/INTSer/1953/16.html

Russia bought tea from us; huge quantities of rather poor-quality teas and supplied us with manufactured goods. This tractor was one such, representing perhaps ten years supply of the morning cuppa to a Russian farmer. What amazed me was its size. It was massive. Not merely big or huge, but massive. Later someone told me that these tractors were failures and people went back to buying the smaller and lighter, Massey-Ferguson tractors, even though they came from a place which was ideologically inferior to the Great Socialist Republic.

I knew the answer but asked him why Massey-Ferguson tractors were considered superior and why the Russian tractor had failed. And sure enough he said, ‘We use tractors to plough in rice fields. A heavy tractor sinks into the soil and even if it has the power to get out, it churns up the soil so much that it spoils everything. Sometimes it gets stuck so badly that we have to yoke bullocks to it to haul it out. Why buy a tractor if you still need bullocks?’ Why indeed!

I did some research into why Russian tractors were so heavy. Massive blocks of steel. The answer I got was that Russian factories measured output by the amount of steel consumed. If you were a factory manager and had to show high production figures, you had to show that you were consuming a high tonnage of steel. There are two ways to do that. Make lots of lighter tractors or fewer but much heavier ones. Which is easier? You guessed it. And there you have, massive tractors, that make the Production Reports look good. How do they work in the field? Depends on the field. Maybe they worked fine in the Russian steppe, ploughing to grow wheat or corn. But in India, in rice fields they failed. To this day in some villages you can see a massive steel tractor gently rusting, testimony to an age of mindless industrialization where progress was measured by weight.

You get what you measure… so let us ask, “How do we measure human worth?”

Today we live in a world where dignity has quite wrongfully been linked to material wealth. No matter how learned a man or woman may be, or how kind or truthful or trustworthy, if they are not wealthy, they are treated with disdain. Net worth has only one meaning. And I can’t think of a more dishonorable meaning; to equate a person to the amount of money in his pocket. HNI; what if it meant Person with the best character? Instead of Person with the most money, no matter how he earned it and no matter what his character is like. Not to say that all rich people are evil. They aren’t. I am talking about what we measure which shows what we truly value. If we measured character, truthfulness, kindness, compassion, courage, dignity, concern for the underprivileged, the weak, elderly, poor, sick; then that is how we would define ourselves. High Networth Individual would mean the kindest, most truthful, most compassionate, most courageous person in that society. We wouldn’t glorify ostentation, waste, self-centered consumption, cruelty, oppression. We would call Aristotle, ‘The Great’, instead of Alexander, whose only claim to fame was that he left Macedonia to rape, plunder and loot his way across a million square miles of others’ homes and societies. Who we glorify and celebrate, tells a much bigger story about who we are than about who they were.

Ask, what would the implications of living in such a society be on people’s happiness and self-worth; real self-worth, not pretentions to it. I believe this is something to think about.

If we applied today’s standard of HNI – High Networth Individual, how would people like Hillel and Shammai, Al Ghazali, Al Biruni, Ibn Sinna, Abu Hanifa, Ahmad bin Hanbal, Jalauddin Rumi and so many sages and scholars of so many traditions, look? How would you judge the Networth of Aristotle, Epictetus, Plato, or even the prophets like Moses, Abraham, and perhaps most of all Jesus (Peace be on them all) – about whom Muhammad (Peace be on him) said, “The sky was his roof and the earth his bed.” Today he would probably be in a homeless shelter after having been arrested from a park bench or pavement and taken there by the police.

Conversely if we applied an ethical and moral standard to decide who was an HNI and who wasn’t, how would Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, the various Middle Eastern Potentates, and the many billionaires in different countries, look? Especially if you consider the fact that the poorest countries in the world today seem to have the highest number of billionaires. Many of them living in high-rise palaces with their feet grounded in the misery and squalor of the daily lives of the poor. Not ashamed, not troubled, not even giving it a second thought as they go about trying to outdo each other in vulgar display of wealth; not by competing in charity but in wastage and excess.

Rabbi Elazar said: The reward for charity is paid from Heaven only in accordance with the kindness and generosity included therein and in accordance with the effort and the consideration that went into the giving. It is not merely in accordance with the sum of money, as it is stated: “Sow to yourselves according to charity and reap according to kindness.

Islam is very particular about preserving the dignity of the receiver so that he doesn’t feel demeaned because he needs to accept charity. Islam says that the one who receives, honors the one who gives because by giving the giver is receiving reward from Allahﷻ whereas the one receiving is only getting something material from another human being. So, the giver gives and thanks the receiver for accepting it.

‘If you want to know what someone values, see what they measure.’

There is a wonderful story about the Regent of the Moghal Emperor Akbar, who came to the throne at the age of ten and had a Regent who ruled in his name until he came of age and who was his mentor, teaching him how to be King. His name was Abdur Raheem and his title was Khan-e-Khanaan (The Khan of Khans – Chief of Chiefs). He was a very learned man, a polymath, a scholar of Islam and known for his great wisdom and sagacity.

One day Abdur Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan was traveling from Delhi, the capital, to Agra. Needless to say, he was preceded by his massive entourage and surrounded by his escorting troops and personal bodyguard. On the way he saw a man standing at the edge of the road with a glass bottle in his hand in which were a few drops of water. The man would tilt the bottle until the few drops of water were at the lip of the bottle, in danger of falling out, and would then straighten the bottle so that they didn’t fall out. This he kept doing over and over. Abdur Raheem ordered his carriage to stop and ordered his treasurer to give the man a bag of gold coins. This was done.

That evening, when he was in camp and his Durbar had been set up and he was receiving petitions, his treasurer asked him, “Your Grace, why did you give that man a bag of gold coins? Who was that man?”

Abdur Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan said, “I am surprised you are asking this question. Didn’t you see what the man was saying?”

The treasurer said, “Your Grace, all I saw was that the man was tilting the bottle until the water in it almost flowed out, but he would save it at the last moment and didn’t allow it to fall out. But what does that mean?”

Abdur Raheem said, “It means that the man was saying, “I have lost everything except two drops of honor. And now even that is about to go.” If he had come and begged me for charity, it would be at the expense of his honor. So, I ordered you to give him the gold so that his honor is preserved, and nobody knows that he received charity.

Today as we speak there is a raging debate about the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. On one side are those who claim that this is good for the people of Kashmir who will now be able to sell their land and become wealthy. They say that this will bring in much needed new business and tourism and thereby jobs and boost the economy. Even those who normally walk the high talk of ethics and morals supported the bill in Parliament on the plea that it was ‘good for the people of Kashmir’. On the other side are those arguing that you can’t take unilateral action without consulting the people, on the plea that it is good for them? Why were the people themselves, whose welfare seems to be everyone’s concern, not taken into confidence before taking the action of abrogating a Sovereign Guarantee enshrined in nothing less than the Indian Constitution?

What is a Sovereign Guarantee? It is a guarantee given by the Nation. Not by the government in power at the time. But by the Nation, to fulfill whatever it was that was guaranteed. No matter if the government that gave the guarantee changes. The guarantee would still be valid and sacrosanct. Especially where it is enshrined in the Constitution, it is inviolate and inviolable. However, it looks like today we seem to have changed the meaning of Sovereign Guarantee. Does this mean that a Sovereign Guarantee can never be changed? No, it doesn’t. It means that it can’t be changed unilaterally. If the two parties in the guarantee mutually agree to change it, then it can be changed honorably. But both parties must be involved in the re-negotiation and must come to a new agreement. For one party to unilaterally change a Sovereign Guarantee is not honorable. Do we even know what honorable means today? After all, today our highest criterion for decision making seems to be political expediency.

I am not against economic development. I am against giving it precedence over honor, truthfulness and integrity. After all, if we do that, then what’s wrong with drug dealing, stealing, bribing, human trafficking and a plethora of ways to make money? It is only truthfulness, the sense of right and wrong, virtue and sin that is the demarcating line between what is honorable and what is not. Al Capone was an entrepreneur, wasn’t he? So is Bill Gates. Is there a difference? Who would you like to be? If I break my word once, then what value does my promise have in the future? It takes a lifetime to build trust but to destroy it, all it takes is one instant. Take an expensive crystal vase and drop it on a stone floor. As it shatters into a thousand pieces, you will perhaps understand what I mean by keeping and breaking promises. Can it be put back if you are able to collect all the pieces? Perhaps it can. But it will never be the same. You will always be able to see the fault lines. Another simple way to understand this is to ask yourself this question, “Who would I rather deal with? A person who keeps his word or one who is liable to betray it if it suits him?” A Sovereign Guarantee is not about the matter that you are guaranteeing. It is about us as a Nation. It tells the world who we are. Or more accurately about how we choose to define ourselves. The world merely agrees.

As Mikel Harry said, ‘If you want to see what people value, see what they measure.’ Let us ask ourselves, what do we measure? Not just pay lip service to. But measure because we value it.

It was 1980. I was working in Guyana, in a small mining town on the River Berbice, called Kwakwani. I had saved up money to take my first holiday and planned to go to London. As I was going to pass through the United States, I thought it would be a good idea if I could stop by and visit some friends and see New York. But there was one problem. I applied for a visitor’s visa to the US but was refused. The Immigration Officer thought that as I was young, single, and unattached, I would stay on in the US illegally. So, sadly, I only transited in New York and went on to London. In 1982, when I decided to return to India though I would need to transit through New York and was dying to see the city, I did not even plan to apply for a visitor’s visa as I was sure I would be refused again for the same reason.

However, one weekend a few months before I was due to leave, I went to visit my good friend Rev. Thurston Riehl who was the Vicar of Christchurch Vicarage, the Anglican Church in Georgetown. He lived in a lovely wooden bungalow in the Church compound with his wife Clarissa Riehl, who was the Public Prosecutor in the High Court. Father Riehl told me that he had invited a few people over that evening and one of them was the Deputy Consul General of the United States, a man named Dennis Goodman. Father Riehl said that he would recommend my case to Goodman to see if it would help. I agreed. That evening when the introductions had been done, Father Riehl said, “Yawar is going back to India and wants to see New York. He had applied for a visa in 1980 but was refused. Do you think there is a chance that he can get a visa this time?”

Goodman turned to me and asked, “What is the guarantee that you will not stay on illegally if we give you a visa. Please don’t be offended. This is a very common thing and something that the visa officer will need to be convinced about.”

“I give you my word that I will not stay on illegally. More than that, I can’t do.” I said. Dennis Goodman simply looked at me in silence and then said, “Please come and see me the next time you are in Georgetown.”

So promptly the following week I went to the US Consulate to see Mr. Goodman. Those were the days before the security nightmares that you have to face today, and I was conducted straight away to his office. He gave me an application form, and after I had filled it in, he accompanied me to the Visa Section next door. There he asked me to wait at the window and went behind the counter. The window had a glass panel and a mike into which you had to speak.

As Dennis Goodman walked into the office, the lady at the counter turned to talk to him and forgot to switch off her mike. So, I was unwittingly privy to their conversation.

Goodman: “Can you please give him a visitor’s visa? He is going back home and wants to see New York.”

“Hi Dennis, give me a second.” The lady checked her records and said, “Did he tell you that his brother is already there? This guy is not leaving once he lands in New York, believe me.”

Goodman: “He gave me his word that he will leave.”

“His word?? What on earth is that?? Don’t tell me you believe him!!”

Goodman: “As a matter of fact, I do. So please give him the visa. I will guarantee that he will not stay illegally.”

“Okay Sir, it’s your neck!!”

Then she turned back to the window where I was and said to me, “Please come in the evening and collect your passport.” I thanked her and left. Neither of them was aware that I’d heard their entire conversation.

I landed in America, stars in my eyes. I was given a stay permit for three weeks. I was however not prepared for the reception that I got. After the initial welcome, all my friends got after me to find a job. I tried to tell them that I had not come to stay and that I was only visiting on my way back to India. The conversations all went something like this:

“I have a friend who runs a restaurant and is looking for help. You can start waiting at tables and then see where it takes you. Nothing to worry. We all start the same way in this country but see where we are today. Here they pay you by the hour. No way you can get that in India.”

“I haven’t come to stay. I am going back home. I got my visa on the promise that I wouldn’t stay in America illegally. So, I am not going to.”

Looks of incredulity. Where is this guy from? I mean which planet? Promise? What is he talking about anyway? Let me ask.

“What promise?”

“I promised the Consul General in Guyana that I wouldn’t overstay my visa and wouldn’t remain in the US illegally.”

“Yeah! Tell me about it! We all did that. So, what happened? Everyone knows, we are not doing anything illegal. We are just hustling for a living. So, can you. Who cares?”

“Staying without a visa is illegal. Who cares? I care.”

“You are just plain lazy. You don’t want to work hard. Do you have a job in India? What will you do there? You will starve. Look at so-and-so, see how he made a success. Started pumping gas. Now he owns the gas station. So can you if you only work hard.”

“In India I will have to work harder. It is not about hard work. It is about keeping my word. I promised Dennis Goodman that I would not stay back. (I tell the whole story again). He told the consular officer to give me a visa on his guarantee. How can I go back on my word?”

“Dennis Goodman is not watching you. He doesn’t even know.”

“Yes, you are right. He is not watching me. Dennis Goodman doesn’t know. But I do.”

End of conversation. Nobody is convinced. Nobody shows me any respect for standing by my principles. But it doesn’t matter to me, because I couldn’t have done anything else. I don’t budge, because my word is my bond. And I gave my word.

When I reached England, enroute to India, the first thing I did was to buy a postcard of Big Ben, stuck some nice British stamps on it and mailed it to Goodman saying, “This is proof that I have left the US as I had promised.” I never heard from him and don’t even know if he got the card. Postal services to Guyana were rather shaky at the time, but if he is still around and reads this, I want him to know that I remember his kindness and appreciated his belief in me. And I want him to know that I kept my word and did what I’d said I would. Maybe he can show this to the lady who’d said to him, “It’s your neck.” His neck was safe.

The world is round and what goes around, comes around. Today almost forty years later, I have been lecturing American diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and have lived and worked in America and traveled there many times. Every time I do, I think of Dennis. Very interestingly also, a dear friend, who heard this story, found Dennis on the net. I am hoping it is him and that I will be able to contact him, so that the story can have a proper end. Shows how the world is both a small and a big place.

Mirza Yawar Baig is based in Hyderabad, India and is the founder and President of Yawar Baig & Associates; an international leadership consulting organization. He can be reached at yawar@yawarbaig.com


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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: News Letter – Countercurrents – DE LA GRANDE VADROUILLE A LA LONGUE MARGE

  2. Saheli Chowdhury says:

    A very beautiful piece of writing – exactly what we need in these times.