Sir Syed Day Mushaira & AEEF Benefit Dinner in the San Francisco Bay Area
By Ras H. Siddiqui


The Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association of Northern California held their annual Sir Syed Day event at the Chandni Restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area city of Newark on Saturday, October 6 th.

During the event it was not only the famous university located in the city of Aligarh, India which was remembered, and its founder, Sir Syed honored, but the effort to give back to the community and country via the Aligarh Education Endowment Fund (AEEF) provided an additional focus. Invited speaker Dr. Rafiq Dossani, currently a Senior Economist at the Rand Corporation, provided the academic component to the evening and last but not least the Urdu language Mushaira (poetry recital)  thrilled  the full house with its linguistic passion.

After a fine dinner in the Mughlai tradition, the evening started off with the customary invocation presented by Hafiz Humayun Suhail. Emcee for the event Dr. Shaheer Khan next presented an introduction and update about the AEEF. “We have to stress Sir Syed’s mission,” he said. Dr. Khan added that over 1700 kids have been helped through this endowment fund ( www.aeef.us ) and that the expenditure for the year was expected to be around $93,000. With some donations already in, an additional $60,000 was needed to best serve the six projects targeted by this endowment which included funding education through scholarship, supporting feeder institutions like Aligarh Modern School, Hamara School, etc., supporting vocational training for women, supporting coaching for both school and college students, a mentorship program and coaching for competitive exams.  A moving video on “Hamara School” was shown in which the plight of the poverty-stricken but determined children was shown. “Children want to go to school. But where would the fees come from?” was the point made here.

Next, to help with the cause three individuals, namely, Afzal Usmani, Ras Siddiqui and Javed Khan, gave short speeches stressing Sir Syed’s vision and the importance of monetarily supporting the AEEF at this event. And speaking of support, Drs. Kamil and Talat Hassan, Mr. and Mrs. Ashraf Habibullah, Mr. and Mrs. Syed Sarwat, Mr. and Mrs. Jamal Qureishi, Mr. Abdul Majid Siddiqui, Dr. and Mrs. Abdul  Qayyum and the  Amana Mutual Funds Trust all deserve a big hand for their sponsorship of Sir Syed Day 2012.

AMU Alumni Association of Northern California President Ms. Amtul Suhail thanked everyone for coming and supporting this effort. She said that there were few in the hall that had not been moved by the documentary shown. She added that seeing the determination of these kids made her appeal for assistance for them self-explanatory.  She also thanked Shaheer Khan and Afzal Usmani for their untiring efforts during this Sir Syed Day and many before. 

Distinguished guest Dr. Rafiq Dossani is no stranger to us here. Currently a Senior Economist at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, Dr. Dossani spent several years at nearby Stanford University where he was a senior research scholar at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (Shorenstein APARC), and also director of the Stanford Center for South Asia. He is the author of a number of books on the South Asian region dealing with education, telecommunications, regional co-existence and peace efforts.  He is currently working with the Indian government on its five-year plan for higher education.

Dr. Dossani had some startling results to share from his research on higher education in India, some of which were not all that flattering. He said that we can look at the last 20 years or the years of reform as experimentation. He said that the government has allowed the private sector to enter the realm of higher education there and spoke about the use of quotas by states in India and the new emphasis on creating elite schools in the country using the IIT’s and IIM’s as role models.

He spoke of the massive funding newly available in the education sector in India and shared the results of PIS A, a global test done every three years for evaluating reading, science and mathematics. Out of the 74 countries tested, China came in first and India came last along with Kazakhstan. He said in another study only 27% of the engineers from there are employable and only 21% of the MBA’s are the same. He added that neither the K to 12 schools nor the colleges are delivering. “So what must be done?” A serious look has been taken of the past two decades initiatives and the 12th Five Year Plan addresses these issues squarely. He commended the AEEF for its own efforts towards educating the less fortunate.

Dossani next addressed plans for the future: The first is the recognition that education is a public good and that a “for profit” approach cannot be the best way.  He said that the vast majority of engineering students attend private colleges in India but the quality in comparison to American universities has been found lacking. He added that the way students study is lecture-based and not much work is put in by them as compared to the students here at Stanford or even in the average universities in the United States. “You are going to see a difference in the quality of the mass of institutions, not just of the quality of elite institutions,” he said. This realization has hit the government there and they are now looking at changing the old ways with a diversity of curriculum.  To make this possible, the government plans to allocate large-new resources and make all institutions eligible to access these resources based on faculty and institutional competence.  In a nutshell, quality education (like that at Stanford University) is heavily subsidized and that realization has sunk in. Again, he commended the AEEF for its efforts and on a more personal note quoted the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of his Ismaili community, to lend support, especially relevant here because the late Aga Khan was one of the signatories of the original charter of the Aligarh Muslim University.

The first half of the program ended with the playing and singing of the Tarana-e-Aligarh or the AMU Anthem during which several of the AMU Alumni fully and passionately participated. But as some would say, the second half of Sir Syed Day is always the more entertaining and once again they were not wrong because the International Mushaira certainly did not disappoint Urdu enthusiasts in the audience. 

Amongst the formidable presenters of Urdu poetry here were (in order of appearance)  Ahmar Shehwaar  (Bay Area), Zia Zafir (Sacramento), Tashie Zaheer (Bay Area), Sunil Kumar “Tang” (India), Hasan Kazmi (India), Shahida Hasan (Pakistan) and last but not least Waseem Barelvi (India). Jazib Qureshi (Pakistan) who was on the list of poets slated to present their work could not make it to the program.

It becomes very difficult to keep a journalistic posture during a Mushaira. One cannot but get emotionally involved; it is almost as if our old tehzeeb is calling us through these poets. But from memory Ahmar, Zia Zafir and Tashie Sahib all made our local region proud through their poetry presentations.  Guest poet Sunil Kumar lived up to his “Tang” reputation and made us laugh. Hasan Kazmi made us smile and wonder while Shahida Hasan introduced us to a beautiful sadness which Urdu poetry is famous for. And last but not least there should be no mystery as to why Waseem Barelvi was chosen for the sadaarat (presidency) of this gathering.  Barelvi Sahib Nay to Mushaira Loot Liya (He stole the show).

In conclusion “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.  Sir Syed once lit a candle whose light has brightened many homes in spite of the resistance that he faced from within his own community. But he did not give up. The Aligarh Muslim University spirit too is one which does not give up. It belongs to everyone. It transcends borders and religions and needs our support for efforts like the AEEF. What our world needs today are visionaries like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. 


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