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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 31 New Delhi July 23, 2016

Lest We Forget

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Several important figures from different walks of life have departed from our midst in the recent past. While remembering them we offer our sincere homage to their abiding memory.

One of Pakistan’s best known Sufi musicians, Amjad Sabri, 45, was shot dead by unknown assailants in Karachi on June 23, 2016. Sabri was travelling by car from his home in the city’s eastern Korangi area to a television studio when a motorcycle pulled up alongside the vehicle and the attackers opened fire; Sabri was hit by five bullets and declared dead at the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital where he was taken. Sabri’s brother, Saleem Sabri, also in the same car, was wounded and is learnt to have been in a critical condition, according to hospital sources.

Sabri was a qawwal, or a singer of qawwali, a form of music associated with Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam viewed as heretical by hardline groups such as the Taliban. Son of another legendary qawwali singer, Ghulam Farid Sabri, he was known as the “rockstar of qawwali” due to his modern style rendition; he was a fixture in Pakistan’s national television and regularly performed on a morning show during Ramzan.

In an editorial on June 24, titled “Delhi of a singer”, The Hindu described Amjad Sabri as the “latest victim of the Taliban’s war on plurality” and obsrved:

“The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has claimed responsibility for Sabri’s murder..., has said the group considers his music blasphemous. The reason lies in the Taliban’s own ideological moorings. Qawwali is a part of the Sufi tradition that binds not only Muslims across South Asia, but people of other faiths too. It is indeed the most vibrant itieration of the subcontinent’s syncretism. The TTP, steeped in an extremist, fundamentalist approach to religion and society, has long made known its displeasure against both music and the Sufis. Being part of the well-known Sabri family tradition, Amjad clearly was a target. His murder is also in line with the new tactical use of violence by the TTP. Of late the group has turned its focus from large-scale attacks in public places to targeted killings...

“Unlike major attacks in public places, targeted killings are unlikely to attract a massive security crackdown on militants. The TTP may have learnt this lesson after the 2014 Peshwar school massacre, which forced the Pakistani security establishment to turn against the militants.”

On June 28, 2016 Naga leader Isak Chisi Swu, 87, who led one of the most powerful insur-gencies in our country’s North-East for almost three decades, passed away at a Delhi hospital due to multiorgan failure. A founder member of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), which signed a framework agreement with the Centre on August 3, 2015 to find a permanent solution to the vexed Naga issue, Swu had floated the idea of an agreement with New Delhi on the same lines in March last year, according to R.N. Ravi, who is the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) chief as well as interlocutor from the Indian side for the Naga peace talks; he further disclosed that Swu gave the final shape to the framework agreement in June 2015.

Swu, belonging to the Sumi tribe, hailed from the Zunheboto district of Nagaland; his body was taken to his native place for the last rites.

Swu, alongwith Thuingaleng Muivah (the NSCN-IM’s General Secretary), formed the group in 1980 opposing the Shillong Accord signed by the then Naga National Council (NNC) with the Central Government for bringing peace to Nagaland. [Earlier it was called the NSCN but after its co-founder S.S. Khaplang left the group to found a separate organisation it became NSCN-IM.] Over the years the NSCN-IM was accused of resorting to killings, extortion and other subversive activities. As a matter of fact its persistent demand for separation from the country resulted in a military clampdown on the group.

Though the negotiations, which began in 1987, are still continuing and the contents of the framework agreement have not been as yet made public, Swu’s departure from the scene has opened new uncertainties for the future. However, there is a feeling that Swu’s exit would not derail the negotiation process as he was not, due to his protracted illness, part of the process in the real sense, the actual “political and strategic brain of the NSCN-IM leadership is Muivah” while “Swu was a benign moral guide and figurehead”, as noted by Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of Imphal Free Press, who has authored the book The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers. Yet as PM Narendra Modi pointed out at the time of signing the framework agreement at his residence at New Delhi’s 7 Race Course Road on August 3 last year, “Just as his (Swu’s) contribution to this agreement has been huge, his guidance will remain crucial in the times ahead.”

The big question now is: who will be the new Chairman of the outfit and the new President of the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland, the two positions that Swu held? It is indeed a difficult question to answer. In his tribute to Swu in The Statesman of July 4, 2016, Oken Jeet Sandham, the editor of the North-East Press Agency, opined: “The exercise of finding a new Chairman will be tough but whoever is selected, one thing is certain—there will be no one like Swu.”

One of the pioneers of modern Indian art K.G. Subramanyan, 92, passed away in Vadodara (where he was recovering from a surgery) on June 29. He was known to the art lovers, who held him in great esteem, as ‘Mani-da’; he taught at Vadodara’s M.S. University besides his alma-mater, the Visva-Bharati University.

Born in Kerala, Subramanyan was studying economics in Presidency College, Madras when the call of the freedom movement led many young people to plunge into the struggle for independence. He too was no exception and was naturally imprisoned for his activities on this score. On his release he joined the Kala Bhavan at Santiniketan and studied under such stalwarts in the field of art as Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij. With Benode Behari he shared a deep bond. And, as Shailaja Tripathi notes in The Hindu, 

In fact he got interested in murals because of him (Benode Behari) in his last year in college when Mukherjee allowed him to work with him on a mural in Hindi Bhavan in Santiniketan. He later went to the Slade School of Art in London.

“The recipient of Padma Vibhushan straddled different mediums and excelled in each one of them—painting, murals, sculpture, illustrations and even toys. He was an art historian too with an incredible body of writing on Indian art to his credit.”

She further writes:

“He was a storyteller extraordinaire, enchanted with mythology. But these stories got a new lease of life on his reverse painting on acrylic sheets, oil paintings, sketches and drawings. The age-old tales were placed in today’s context and then reinterpreted and retold, Any ordinary scheme from our daily life could trigger a thought in his mind and translate into fierce goddesses, demons, monkey god Hanuman, snake...”

And noted sculptor Himmat Shah recalls:

“I was a student at the M.S. University at Vadodara when I heard the good news that K.G. Subramanyan, the great artist and academician, joining our institute as a Professor of Painting... It was his friend Sankho Chaudhury, himself an exceptionally gifted sculptor, who had to do all the persuasion to make him come all the way from London to join the institute’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

“An affable personality, he was liked by everyone because of his deep knowledge and good nature. We affectionately referred to him as Mani Sir, who was known for teaching students the scientific way. He had an economics background but that did not come in the way while talking about the world of art, explaining new and old concepts in a straightforward manner. He was an expert when it came to explaining things theoretically.

“Influenced by the Gandhian philosophy while doing his bit during the freedom struggle, Mani Sir would come to the university dressed nattily in khadi, kurta and pyjama. That image is still etched in my mind of this guru, whose teachings need to be made compulsory for the benefit of students of fine arts in all institutions across the country.”

Of all those who passed away in recent times, Romesh Chandra was the most well known as a political personality in the national and international arena having played a key role in the Indian and global peace and solidarity movement.

A former President of the World Peace Council, Romesh Chandra, 97, breathed his last in Mumbai in the afternoon of July 4, 2016. He is survived by his daughter, Shobha, and son, Feroze. According to his last wish, his body was handed over to the J.J. Hospital in the city. Perin Chandra (née Bharucha), whom Romesh had matried in Lahore in the 1940s, had passed away in Mumbai on January 7, 2015, precisely eighteen months before Romesh’s departure; her body too was donated to the hospital as per her last wish.

Born on March 30, 1919 in Lyallpur, now in Pakistan, he studied in the University of Lahore and Cambridge University. From 1934 to 1941 he was the Chairman of the Students’ Union at Lahore University.

As the CPI’s Central Secretariat informed, Romesh Chandra “became a member of the Communist Party of India in 1939, of the Central Committee of the CPI in 1952, of the National Council of the CPI in 1958; from 1963 to 1967 he was a member of the Central Secretariat of the CPI”.

Romesh Chandra—like many others of the Lahore students’ group in the 1940s, for example, Litto Ghosh (who married Ajoy Ghosh, the last General Secretary of the united CPI), Perin Chandra, Satish Loomba, Primla Loomba—remained in the CPI during its historic split in 1964 and put up a steadfast struggle against the party division which, however, could not be averted. It was during this period, at a time most crucial for the party and the Indian communist movement, that he edited the CPI’s central organ, New Age.

He served as the General Secretary of the All India Peace Council from 1952 to 1963. Subsequently the All India Peace Council was turned into the All India Peace and Solidarity Organisation (AIPSO).

He joined the World Peace Council in 1963 and in 1966 became the WPC’s General Secretary and a member of its Presidium. In 1977 he was elected the WPC President.

The CPI Central Secretariat underlined:

“During the Assembly of the WPC in Athens in 2000, Romesh Chandra contributed decisively towards the preservation of the anti-imperialist character of the WPC and got elected as its President of Honour.

“Romesh Chandra was awarded the F. Joliot-Curie Gold Peace Medal in 1964. He received the International Lenin Prize for Strengthening Peace among Nations in 1968, and he was awarded the Order of Friendship of Peoples by the USSR in 1975.

“He addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly as the World Peace Council leader for the highest number of times as an Indian.”

One recalls how R.K. Hegde, the then General Secretary of the ruling Janata Party in the 1970s, had paid rich compliments to Romesh Chandra after attending one of the World Peace Congresses, saying that as an Indian he felt legitimately proud of what a fellow Indian had achieved on the world stage. Hegde subsequently became the Chief Minister of Karnataka.

An accomplished orator, he was fluent in both English and French. Those who have listened to his speeches have always come back enthralled and inspired.

A memorial meeting was held at the CPI headquarters in Ajoy Bhavan to pay homage to Romesh Chandra’s memory. Those who spoke included S. Sudhakar Reddy, the CPI General Secretary, and his CPI-M counterpart, Sitaram Yechury. [Congress leader Anand Sharma was also invited to participate in the meeting but could not do so due to his heavy preoccupations jut before the monsoon session of Parliament.] Besides, diplomatic representatives of Vietnam, PLO, South Africa spoke and read out messages sent from their respective governments and organisations.

Condolence messages have also come from the World Peace Council, former Vice-President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, President of the Vietnam Peace and Development Foundation Vu Xuan Hong, President of the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organisations Uong Chu Luu, Vice-President of the Vietnam National Assembly, President of the Vietnam Peace Committee and President of the Vietnam Committee for Asia-Africa-Latin America Pham Van Chuong. These apart, AIPSO and Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD) have also condoled Romesh Chandra’s death.

Abbas Kiarostami, 76, often hailed as Iran’s greatest film-maker, died on July 4 in Paris. According to Iran’s official news agency, he was taken to the French capital for treatment for cancer after undergoing surgery in Iran.

Kiarostami was loosely associated with the Iranian New Wave Cinema of the late 1960s. He first made films about childhood problems for the Centre for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults where he had established a film-making division. William Grimes wrote in The New York Times: 

“He often worked in semi-documentary style, and used non-professional actors, from whom he coaxed extraordinary performances...

“He remained in Iran after the 1979 revolution and largely managed to work around the artistic obstacles thrown up by the new government.

“He began attracting notice outside Iran with the feature film Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987) about a conscientous schoolboy determined to return a friend’s notebook to keep him from being expelled. Told from its young hero’s point of view, it placed the boy’s small story in the social context of rural Iran, with sweeping shots of the landscape.

“This was the first instalment in the three films called the Koker trilogy, set in the village of that name in northern Iran, rocked by a devastating earthquake that struck in 1990.

“Kiarostami made two films dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy, Aod Life Goes on (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), that marked the director as a maker of talent in world cinema, whose profoundly rooted realism and compassion drew comparisons to Vittorio De Sica and the Indian director Satyajit Ray.”

His 1997 film Taste of Cherry, with its acute presentation of moral issues and personal crisis, was reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. It made a profound impression on critics and thus won him the Palma D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

On July 8, 2016 Abdul Sattar Edhi, 88, better known as the “Mother Teresa of Pakistan”, passed away in Karachi; he was suffering from severe kidney problems.

Edhi, also known as the ‘servant of humanity’ ran the world’s largest private ambulance network. He came from a trading family of Gujarat and had no training in social work. Then how did he become such a reputed social worker? That happened soon after partition. “I listened to my heart and felt compelled to do something about the sight of the bodies floating in Karachi harbour.” he told The Hindu in 2010. In those months after the new country was born with the vivisection of British India, Edhi would often spot anonymous bodies bobbing in the waters of the Arabian Sea.

According to Edhi himself, “I would jump into the sea, retrieve the dead. Drape them in clean clothes and provide them a decent burial.” Apart from the Edhi Foundation in Karachi, he also ran the Edhi Graveyard Services, perhaps the only one of its kind that ensures dignified burial of the dead in Pakistan’s major cities.

As The Hindu report observed,

“Edhi was a multitasking genius. The vast network of Edhi’s orphanages spread across Pakistan has a tradition of keeping a crib outside. ‘Often in the morning we find that a child has been left in our crib. We immediately adopt the child and do not go around looking for the parents. We give him or her a new name and a new life,’ he had said. Not all children in Edhi’s care are infants. Some are like the differently abled Indian girl Geeta who was brought to the orphanage in Lahore by the police. Geeta was returned to India earlier this year.

“Edhi’s style of functioning bore signs of his dedication. The cramped ground floor office had a few sofas where he would sit receiving visitors from morning till night. Next to him on a table, piles of old bound volumes contained names and addresses of all the contributors who supported the work of the Edhi Foundation since he began in 1951 with the Memon Volunteer Corps, which became the Abdul Sattar Trust in 1974.”

Edhi welcomed donations from the public but declined government funds. His ambulance service always reached first to help the injured in ethnic riots of Karachi or assist victims of floods in Sindh or Taliban attacks in Peshawar. Incidentally, he braved threats from the Taliban as the Islamic fundamentalists branded him an infidel since he loved people of all faiths. Nevetheless, Edhi worked fearlessly without bodyguards.

Now his wife Bilquis takes over all the Edhi orphanages. Renowned Pakistani author Tehmina Durrani has written his biography.

On his death Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif announced a state funeral and a day of national mourning in honour of Edhi. Hundreds of trained volunteers are ready to carry forward the tradition of his humanitarian work that is expected to survive the vicissitudes of time.

We also mourn the demise of Shiv Kumar Mishra, 76, who recently passed away in his native Ghaziabad in UP. Born in 1940, he did his Masters in political science. During his student days he came under the influence of two Communist leaders of the area—Manzur Ahmad, the Secretary of the Meerut District Committee of the undivided Communist Party, and K.N. Singh. They introduced him to Marxism and he remained a Marxist till the end.

He began his journey in the communist movement by working in the students’ front. Subsequently he worked in building the communist movement in the whole of UP along with Manzur Ahmed and K.N. Singh.

He contributed in building the workers’ organisation in the Motinagar sugar factory and was associated with the workers’ struggles there for a considerable length of time.

He cherished his acquaintance with P. Sundarayya, A.K. Gopalan and E.M.S. Namboodiripad. He also held discussions with T. Nagi Reddy and introduced the Hindi version of Nagi Reddy’s India Mortgaged in Delhi in 2011.

He edited the weekly Mukti Yudh that came out from Ghaziabad for 11 years. Later he edited Janyug in the eighties. He was detained on June 23, 1975 under MISA and suffered imprisonment for 19 months.

In his last years he worked in Secular Democracy brought out by D.R. Goyal, the erstwhile editor of Mainstream. Though associated with the Naxalite movement at one stage he was totally opposed to Charu Mazumdar’s ‘annihilation’ programme and wrote many articles exposing its hollowness.