Just yesterday was the 70th death anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, and I remember his Nobel winning poetry which begins as :
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”
Incidentally, today I found myself reading something similar in spirit of this poem while , enjoying Kamran Rehmat’s eloquent note on simplicity of the office of Norwegian PM and the minimal security he keeps.(Kamran Rehmat is a Pakistani newspaper editor based in Islamabad, who’s writings are like a new lesson in English language, and each time leaves one richer in vocabulary).
His note led me to the memory of the news in 1986, when Olof Palme, was murderd while walking back from a cinema at night, in Sweden. Prime Ministers walk back home, was my reaction then. There is reason why Nordic countries are considered as the safest places to live on Earth. (I wonder if the recent Norwegian incident and it’s root cause will change that, but that’s beside the point here)
Reading through, one instantly compares them to the traffic standstills or detours one has to face when our politicans are passing.
The instant pop up in my Third World mindset is–” Come on, those are developed nations and we are merely ‘developing’.”
It takes me back to the peice of knowledge I gained from a movie called The Last Emperor, in 1990, where they showed that when the King passed through the streets of ancient China, the common man was asked to turn away their gaze because their poor eyes weren’t worthy of seeing the Emperor.
Perhaps our politicians in power too are emperors in their own right who live not in forts or castles by name. But their abodes are bedecked no less than castles and protected no less than fortresses. And the feet of the poor common man arent worthy of treading the same street when the emperors pass through it.
But hold on.
I suddenly remember two personal experiences from this very Third World where their persons in authority navigated with same freedom and with minimal security as the Norwegian or Swedish PMs.
One of them is none other than Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia. ( You might just say, that of course Malaysia not all that a developing country. But the reason why they have gone far ahead is because of this very man about whom I will narrate a personal anectode.)
We had been visiting Malaysia as tourists in 2002 . It was the last days of Ramadan and we chose to travel to Malaysia to see how their Muslims celebrate Eid.On the Eid day we went to the Central Mosque in Kuala Lampur for the Eid prayers. Not sure of the timings, we reached the mosque way early and my husband and son sat in the very first row, right behind the Imam’s seat. While I settled with my daughter in the first row of women’s area , ensuring that our men were well in our sight.
After an hour or so, when the mosque had been reasonably full, ( no mad rush), a few men walked upto the front rows and some others staretd to make place for them. My husband was asked to move a little to the side, which he did. But to his utter surprise, the man for whom his place was being vacated was none other than the President Mahathir Mohammed. Having seen that my husband gave place to him, he smiled at him. So my husband stepped forward, shook hands with him and introduced himself as a Pakistani who had come to see the Eid in Malaysia.
After the prayers, he again turned to my husband and told him, to visit his place called Putrajaya ( president’s residence) and join the open feast which the President hosted each year for his compatriots.
Our joy had no bounds. We almost thought that we were invited to a personal lunch with the President.
After a few hours of strolling on the Eid bazars in Bukit Bintang (street), listening to the beautiful melodies of Salamat Hariraya( that’s Malaysian way of saying Eid Mubarak) we dressed our best and headed for Putrajaya.
It was a huge congragation there, with tents put up and thousands of Malaysians, of all ethnicities in a picnic mood and enjoying the ethnic food the Malays serve on Eid. We were told by someone that this was the last time this would be held as Mahathir Muhammed has announced to step down, and he wouldnt be there next Eid.
We saw a horrendously long queue lined up on one side of the tent leading to a door. We were told, this was for those who would like to meet the first couple and give their Eid wishes to them. We joined the queue. Living upto the Pakistani style, my husband told one of the gaurds that we are from Pakistan, and the President himself had invited us, in an attmept that this would help us jump the queue. But the policeman just gave a hospitable smile, his eyes speaking to us to stay put in the queue.
It was a two hour wait, and my kids used it well to make a small card out some paper envelope, with a blue ball point drew a flag of Pakistan and wrote an Eid card for them.
Finally our turn came, we shook hands with the first couple, and to our utter surprise, he himself told his wife, “They are Pakistanis and have come to see our Eid.” Kids gave them the card. We hugged them in a Pakistan Eid greeting. We were handed over a plastic tiffin box on top of which “Thanks from Putrajaya” while the inside had Malaysian sweets. We got exactly the same box as everyone else, and roughly the same two or three minutes of chat as other locals.
In Summary, in our two weeks stay in Malaysia, we happened to meet their President twice, and that too without much difficulty.( Not to speak of how many times we have bumped into any of ours in the whole life).
The second incident was in Calcutta, in late 1979, when I had been visiting the city with my parents, who were attending some conference. My parents chose to commute in bus , as that was the most convenient mode to travel in an overcrowded Calcutta.
In the middle of one journey, my father turned our attention towards a lean and thin dhoti clad man who had climbed the bus. And this man was Jyoti Basu who had become the Cheif Minister of West Bengal just an year or so ago.
My father mentioned it to some of his friends, but they weren’t surprised, for this was common knowledge that he sometimes boarded the bus just to stay connected with the poeple who elected him.
And then this man carried on to be the elected ChiefMinister of West Bengal for next two decades ( from 1977 TO 2000). A CPI(M) member, he went on to make land reforms giving opportunity to the poor to have their own lands. He brought political stability to the state and so much so that when the whole of India was burning twice– once after Indira Gandhi’s death in 1984, and the other at the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, his heavy handed administration did not let any rioting in his state.
As Wickepedia quotes, “West Bengal became an oasis of communal harmony and secular values under his leadership”
Although a CPI (M) member, in an obituuary published by BBC on his death in 2010, it remarked:
“A Fabian Socialist rather than an orthodox Communist, Jyoti Basu worked by consensus, successfully managing coalitions, while showing a healthy respect for the viewpoints of others.”
“He made Communism look respectable,” according to Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhuri, a Calcutta-based political analyst.
Analyst Ashis Chakrabarti said Mr Basu’s success indicated social democracy had a future that Communism did not .
Hence, it was not just a coincidence that we saw these men roaming free in public, there were years of commitment, and hard labour for the common man, which made them be so fearless.
With racing chain of thoughts, my mind shifts to the recent switch on and off, that goes on in Karachi’s killings. It does not need a vision of 6/6 to see who ALL are behind these killing fields. By all I mean ALL, none is above it. I wonder with this track record and with the mess that the stake holders of “peace’ create, can they gather the audacity to sail freely among their own public like the above men.
No wonder our streets from Islamabad to Karachi come to a standstill when they sail ‘fearfully’ on them.
And tragically, it is the common man who recieves the blame of being labelled hateful, narrowminded and divided on ethnic or sectarian lines.
I close this note with the closing lines of Tagore’s poem , which may serve as a prayer to us:
“Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”