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Akbar Khaleeli: Tennis champ, a debater with a passion for Persian poetry

By Danish Khan for TwoCircles.net,

Akbar Khaleeli, retired Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer, is an all-rounder in the true sense of the word. He is perhaps a picture perfect image of an amazing combination of physical and intellectual well-being. He is knowledgeable and humble, articulate and grounded, and above all frank, fearless and meticulous.

Khaleeli is a born leader who served India around the world in several capacities. He has special interest in Persian poetry, literature, painting and history. He was also a tennis champion, and a keen athlete! “Do read ‘The Transfer of Power’ edited by Nicholas Mansergh. It has letters written and received by the prominent leaders and officers,” he told me.

Just as I found the book useful and informative I am sure the readers will find this interview with TwoCircles.net engaging and enlightening.

Akbar Khaleeli

TCN: Please tell us about your education and student days.

I was born in Bangalore in 1936. After schooling in Bishop Cotton Boys’ School Bangalore and later Doveton Corrie Boys’ High School, Madras//Chennai, I took my BA(Honours) Economics degree from Loyola College, Madras and Bachelor of Law from Madras Law College in 1959.

Both in school and in college, I was exposed to inter-action with boys of all communities and classes. I am indebted to the inclusive social environment of Madras, capital of the then Madras Presidency followed up by Tamil Nadu State, where irrespective or religion or language, one could develop with less of the politicised atmosphere which has gradually entered into almost all universities. A quiet and under-stated patriotism came from the atmosphere we lived in rather than any overt indoctrination or programming in school, college or society. There was also a welcome interest in sports and games.

This encouraged the more active among us to participate in what would be called extra-curricular activities. I was a good debater, also a good tennis player, who had the honour of being a class-mate and bench-mate of the great Ramanathan Krishnan. I represented and later captained the Madras University team which won the All-India Inter University Tennis Championship. For a while, I also got interested in Athletics and was member of the Madras University Team as a javelin thrower, an event I won both in my College and also in Madras University Championship.

I have an abiding interest in Tennis and particularly athletics which has been sorely neglected in India. Indeed it is athletics and in general, active sports like wrestling, weight-lifting, hockey and football which need much greater participation and encouragement, so that masses of our youth especially boys develop better health, all-round abilities, competitiveness and sportsmanship.

I also developed some interest in painting and for some time had an avid interest in poetry and literature, including Persian poetry and novels by great Russian writers of the 19th Century. I have had an abiding interest in history and am distressed that in the fragmented rapid communications of our time, respect for facts and history are easily concealed or treated as unnecessary or superfluous.

TCN: How did you get into IFS? Was it always your aim or family expectations?

I was a good all-rounder but not an outstanding student. I was widely read for my age but not very interested in mugging and struggling for high marks in examination. After completing my BA ( Hons), I was not clear as to what I wished to do, but somehow I was never keen to go abroad for higher studies nor join the corporate world. I had no great ambition to enter politics or even to make a mark in administrative services as many of my relations had done. I had a passing desire to join the Armed forces but was hardly clear. Besides, coming from a relatively affluent background and confident of my own talents, there was no pressure on me to do anything for some time.

While taking my law degree, I made up my mind to do my best to get into the IAS/IFS and do something for my country. I did work fairly hard for the first time in my life and had the good luck to be successful. Initially I was in the IAS, but a few weeks after joining, when one of my IFS batchmates dropped out, I opted for the Foreign Service. Strangely, my grandmother encouraged me to join the service after discouraging me to remain in the IAS.

TCN: How did you prepare yourself for the examinations?

Success in all competitive examinations is a combination of hard work and luck. However, much of the hard work can only assist in completing earlier efforts and learning. The habit of learning, absorption and commitment has to mature at least by the time one leaves college so that the accumulated fund of information, knowledge and commitment can be developed further according to the aim one focuses upon. Nowadays the competition is more than in my time; lakhs appear for a few score places and thousands have to be eliminated through preliminary tests. A large proportion of civil servants in the all-India services came from the South. Now things are more even.

Besides as the Indian economy has expanded, many achievers go for other professions, Information Technology, Business Administration and apart from the IITs, Medicine, Engineering and business. Many are also attracted by good jobs abroad. Nevertheless the quality of the IAS, IFS and IPS and other Central Services remains high though their services might be affected depending on the political and related problems in different states.

TCN: What is your message to the Muslim youth?

It is difficult to restrict my advice only to Muslim youth though I will touch on it at some point. Youth all over the world face problems of change, rapid change, more than we did. Communications, TV, Computer, Internet, Mobiles have changed things rapidly and created the illusion of a globalised community. How far this globalised community is still dominated by former colonial powers with their new-found multi-cultural images, is open for investigation.

The point for youth in the developing world to bear in mind is that education is a must and one can no longer romanticise illiteracy, backwardness and poverty. Whether the countries concerned can then produce jobs for the educated is another matter or are they to enter the labour markets of developed countries? Even if the educated unemployed become a volatile political element in their home countries, this is no excuse to not ensure full literacy and better education. Those educated need to bear in mind that they have a privileged position and must work to ensure that evils of their own societies have to be dealt with. There are no easy answers especially in smaller countries vulnerable to the tyranny and vagaries of an increasingly globalised economy. But each country and people have their own talents and have to learn to cope without violence.

The responsibility of so-called Muslim countries to have close and friendly relations with each other , to create educated societies with good values and creative people, to establish recognizably responsive political systems will go a long way to changing superficial impressions of Muslim backwardness, fanaticism and sectarianism.

The disgraceful spectacles of Muslims killing Muslims in their own countries or across their borders, is a violation of fundamental Islamic human values. Muslims must retain faith, patience, avoid clinging to grievances and realise that the talents of the varied Muslim people are second to none and they should not be diverted into side-battles by fanatics and foreign stooges within their fold or outside. It may be a tall order today, but they should fight the image of Islam dividing the world and see it in its historical context, as one of the greatest unifying forces not only for Muslims but humanity. After all, if we are brothers to some in Islam, we are brothers to all in humanity.

Above all therefore, try to avoid being misled by the news media and their slants, whether national or more so international. Avoid rash re-actions to provocations. Even others are victims of information distortions. The dominance of the media and communications by money ensures that news has to be an agent of hidden political or open commercial interests when it is not spasmodic, fragmented dramatisation of incidents, competing for attention with commercial and advertising priorities.

Doctoring of history becomes easier when facts of our own time are distorted. In addition to the above, Muslim youths almost everywhere seem to have to increasingly bear a further burden of demonisation of Islam or more insidious attempts to undermine universal Islamic values or as it were to prove to outsiders that they are dependable and not susceptible to attraction by terroristic networks. This is not a single problem and Muslims should be aware that some countries and cultures have a far superior record of co-existence than others, just as there are some Muslim groups with poor records of co-existence with other creeds and sects. Hence discrimination and patience are virtues which Muslims should show, without succumbing to passivity.

TCN: Any interesting anecdote or experience you would like to share?

Apart from being posted to my HQ, New Delhi off and on, my foreign postings were to Iraq (1960- 62),Sri Lanka (1962-65), France (1967-70),as Charge d’Affaires to Jordan (1970-73), as Ambassador to Iran (1980-84),Italy (1986-90).and High Commissioner to Australia (1991-94).All the countries I was posted to were interesting and while there were problems there were also friends and achievements. I have lived through important, indeed tumultuous periods of some of the countries I served in; Black September 1970 in Jordan, Les evenements de Mai in 1968 in France and the Islamic revolution in Iran followed by the war with Iraq 1980-4.

Also, I had some fascinating times when posted in Delhi. Besides meeting some of the genuinely great personalities of our time cannot be forgotten. These and others are too many and varied to bear writing about in snippets and could mislead some and bore others.