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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 47 New Delhi, November 14, 2015

Remembering Rasheed Talib

Monday 16 November 2015


“How is Rasheed?” This was a question I was to answer very frequently for over three decades by friends in Delhi and outside. Such was the popularity and affectionate feeling for Rasheed Al-Talib among his immunerable friends in various fields of activity. And, as I had the privilege of being a close friend of his, despite an age difference of many years, I was asked about his welfare by common friends even if in a routine manner.

I came to know Rasheed Al-Talib in the early 1960s when he came to Delhi with his equally affectionate wife, Fatima, from Bombay as he wanted a shift from the life of a corporate executive with a specialisation in law to journalism. He had taken his law degree from England but never got to practise law either earlier or in his late professional career.

 As it happened he was picked up by Nikhilda to be a member of the small group of some seasoned and aspiring journalists that he had organised around the newly floated Mainstream. Rasheed was given a place in the journal’s Editorial Board. He contributed some perceptive articles to it apart from sharing the responsibilities of its editorial management.

While Rasheed continued to assist Mainstream, he had set his sight on a wider field of the Fourth Estate and joined the mailer news and feature agency, INFA, floated by the veteran journalist Durga Das, as a feature writer and copy editor. He was extremely good in both these functions—particularly in editing and re-writing wherever required—and, was soon picked up by S. Mulgaonkar, the then Editor of Hindustan Times, as an Assistant Editor of the paper. During this transition, he shortened his name a little by dropping an Arabic prefix and became Rasheed Talib (RT for many of his writings). It was here at Hindustan Times, under the wings of a very distinguished editor that Rasheed matured as an editorial writer and commentator. He stayed with the paper for a quite a long time and earned a reputation as a rationalist communicator and won many friends in the higher echelons of Delhi’s journalistic world.

For me, personally, his cubicle in the Hindustan Times House in Connaught Place was a sort of refuge from my own struggles for a foothold and Rasheed was quite indulgent very much like an elder brother and mentor. I got introduced to some of the best-known names in Indian journalism during the deadline-chasing life as a scribe through him.

Rasheed often talked to me about the non-excitement in a staid and relaxed functioning of a pen-pushing editorial writer and a columnist. He was always in search of some challenging opportunities to take an initiative and do something that could satisfy him. He seized one such opportunity and, in a way, breaking established protocol as an Assistant Editor, he chose to cover the judgement of the Allahabad High Court on June 12, 1975, in the petition against the election of Indira Gandhi. As if he had some foreboding of the great upheaval to come, he went to Allahabad. And, as following the judgement delivered by Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha, there was a lull in the court room as few could guess what could happen as Mrs Gandhi had been disqualified from holding any executive office. Rasheed could talk to the various legal functionaries present there very briefly as Mrs. Gandhi’s lawyer grappled with the possibilities and got the idea of approaching the judge with a request to let the disqualified Prime Minister remain in office for a brief period of time before the election of a new incumbent could take place and the judge accepted the lawyer’s plea and granted some time for a transition. The rest is history.

Rasheed’s report on the delivery of the judgement was probably the best that any paper had carried as he had shown his legal acumen and probed the matter in a few minutes’ time something that others possibly could not.

He showed similar enterprise by making in-depth studies of various issues subsequently. But a time came when he thought he had to move to some pastures ahead and, not unexpectably, had some ups and downs. His assignment as the Executive Editor of a widely circulated weekly from New Delhi was not exactly in sync with his urges and aspirations as a communicator as was also the case with a couple of assignments he took as he shifted to his favourite city of Bangalore. He chose to return to Delhi and use his talent as a television programme presenter and producer of documentaries. He ran a very interesting programme, ‘Panorama’, on Doorsarshan on the lines of a similar programme on BBC television and received appreciation from audiences as well as critics.

His great interest in environmental issues prompted him to produce and direct a six-part series, called ‘Citizen and the Law’, on Doordarshan having the benefit of advice and support of some legal luminaries like Justice P.N. Bhagwati. These dealt with issues like limestone quarrying in the hills near Mussorie, agitations against pollution-creating industries near Almora in UP and Kusnur in the Havery district of Karnataka, as well as the harmful effects of drugs on people, particularly women, due to their unmindful use allowed by the apathetic authority. This series as well as a programme on the Natural Farming experiment in Madhya Pradesh on the lines of the work of the Magsaysay awardee Japanese agricultural expert Fukuoka were very highly appreciated. These programmes did open a new field for this writer and a young Jamia-product, Sohail Akbar, as a couple of other members of Rasheed’s team of Chitravani Films. This was Rasheed’s style of using creativity of young minds and providing them an excellent opportunity to work and develop their talent as, perhaps, he himself had experienced during his young days under senior communicators.

Rasheed was not content with the wide body of work he did in two different fields of creativity. He aspired to work as a researcher in the complexities of the ethos of religious minority communities and their interaction with the majority. An opportunity, in this respect, came to him in the form of a Nehru Fellowship that he was awarded for his pursuits. He worked on the broad rubric of Islam and modernity. He put in his entire repertoire of journalism and other experiences into his research for the Nehru Fellowship project. His resultant book is yet to be published and it is high time that it is brought out now that the minority-majority issues are in the forefront.

While researching his Nehru Fellowship project, Rasheed kept on studying Islamic fundamentalism in all its dimensions and the Hindu reactionary and revivalist movements attacking both severely. His book titled, Essays on Islamic Fundamentalism and Reactive Trend among Indian Hindus Toward Revivalism, a selection of his articles and papers published or read at conferences and seminars throw some new light on the issues that are attracting the attention of the entire world today. He has touched upon very sensitive issues of ‘the status of the Quran’, modernity, reform and renewal among Muslims, Jihad, terrorism and ‘Hindu fundamentalism’. To say the least, Rasheed’s is a bold approach that should make the leaders and followers of both communities sit up and introspect, in search for a path of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.

Rasheed quotes the view of eminent Indian-origin Left-wing intellectual and Professor at Columbia University, Akeel Bilagrami, that “...in interpreting the Quran, the ‘Meccan’, verses may need to be treated differently from the ‘Medinan’ verses; the former being revealed during the first decade of Muhammad’s prophet-hood when he was purely a prophet preaching the faith; and the latter set of verses revealed to him, in Medina when he combined in his person the roles of a prophet and political leader as head of the world’s first Islamic state”. Once it is held legitimate to have such a separation, Rasheed writes, “we are but a short step away from (a position that) the Quran verses that deal with matters concerning history or politics of Prophet Muhammad’s days or are otherwise of a mundane, routine, quotidian or this — worldly nature, be regarded as non-binding although entitled to the believer’s fullest respect: both sets of verses forming nonetheless part of ‘the Word of God’, which the Quran is believed by the overwhelming majority of Muslims to be.”

Rasheed points out that “Once one begins to view the Quran in this light, many of the difficulties posed by Islam’s medieval human and social value-system disappear—difficulties arising specifically from verses that prescribe: (a) cruel forms of punishment; (b) unequal treatment of women; (c) outdated gender-sensitive rules of inheritance; and (d) the waging of ‘Jihad’ in the sense of holy war against ‘kafirs’, or non-believers.”

These are very sensitive subjects to express one’s views on. But Rasheed has done that and it is hoped he would not be misunderstood and be treated as an impartial observer of scriptural beliefs in today’s world. What Rasheed has written in this book and elsewhere is what he practised and inspired many others to do so: an unbiased secularist with equal respect for all faiths and their adherents and an interpreter of the real substance of the vital scriptural pronouncements.

Before Rasheed took the Nehru Fellowship, he had a stint at Princeton University where he studied an amalgam of language, law and polity. He used his work at Princeton in his writings on different subjects even if he could not organise a compilation of his research product into one single volume. If somehow a compilation could be made of his work, it would be quite useful and perhaps not dated.

Rasheed shifted to Pune with Fatima Bhabi quite sometime ago while his only son, Zafar, is involved in his work in Public Health issues in Australia. Only a couple of months back, he asked me to visit Pune and stay with him as he had a very commodious guest facility. I promised to take a trip to Pune soon. But I could not keep my promise and I was shocked to have been informed by a friend that he passed away in Bangalore aged about 86. Fatima Bhabi told me over the phone that Rasheed got a repeat stroke after the first one about a year ago. And this virtually resulted in a near collapse of his organs. She took him to Bangalore for a better medical and home care, in view of many of their family members resident there. But he could not make any recovery and passed away on October 21. RIP.

It is not easy to get a friend like Rasheed and an unassuming, helpful human being for the society. Rasheed’s interest in various spheres of life won him innumerable friends and close associates: Among journalists persons like Nikhil Chakravartty, Romesh Thapar, B.G. Verghese, C.P. Ramachandran and many others were his close friends; among jurists, he had helpful friends like Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Danial Latifi, A.G. Noorani, Soli Sorabjee and Salman Khursheed among the younger group. In the creative fields he gelled excellently with old friends like theatre great Ebrahim Alkazi, eminent graphic designer, Dilip Chowdhury, and a whole lot of communicators and advertising giants based in Mumbai; among innovative entrepreneurs he took active interest in the enterprise of his very dear friends John and Bimla Bissel, founders of Fabindia, the first major textile and fabrics project of its type in India even though it was more an area of Fatima Bhabi’s interest who has great ideas about development of such experiments.

Our sincere condolences and message of support to Fatima Bhabi who would be winding up her settlement in Pune to go to stay at Bangalore among her dear ones.

The author is a veteran writer and journalist who was associated with Mainstream as its Assistant Editor in its early years.

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