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A life sketch of Wahid Saleh, Pravasi Bharatiya Samman recipient 2011

Wahid Saleh is a symbol of the indomitable Assamese spirit, a product of the tolerant pluralistic culture of the Brahmaputra valley. Originating from a very humble background, he managed to curve out a high ground for himself through sheer hard work, grit, struggle, sacrifice and constant adaptation to his work and adopted environment. Wahidda is an iconic persona among the NRIs, jokingly termed by him as Now Required Indians. A “true son of Assam”, he has been involved in a number of activities to payback his debt and love to his land of birth. In recognition, he was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman by the Hon’ble President of India Shrimati Pratibha Devi Singh Patil at Vigyan Bhawan on 9th January, ’11. He was also given the rare honour of making the acceptance speech on behalf of all the PBS recipients. Earlier he received Knight Order of Orange –Nassau from the Queen of Netherlands. He also completed his spiritual duties by undertaking the ‘Haj’ pilgrimage to Mecca this year. I was privileged to meet him at hotel Taj Palace, where he was a state guest and jotted the life sketch for the readers of ‘Samayik’.

Wahidda was born on 21st April, 1941 at Jorhat. He did his schooling in Jorhat and Kohima. After Matriculation from Kohima he passed undergraduate from J.B. College, Jorhat. From there he went to study Aircraft Maintenance Engineering at Ernakulum in Kerala. The college sent him to join BMW Triebwerkbau GmbH, in Munich, Germany for higher training in Jet Engines. Before that he joined Kalinga Airlines and worked as a trainee. For few months, he worked as a teacher at the Kohima Government High School. In November 1963 he literally left the shores of India from Bombay port by ship and after a 14 days long voyage reached Genoa in Italy. From there he took the train and travelling through Switzerland arrived in Munich in one of the coldest winters of Europe. In Germany apart from getting training in Jet-engines, he also honed survival instincts in an alien environment, amidst a totally different work culture and above all without knowing the local language. From Munich he went to Hamburg to work with the Lufthansa German Airlines. There he came in contact with Numerical Controlled Machines and data processing. he joined evening classes to study computer programming in languages like Basic, COBOL, FORTRAN, Algol, etc. and IT Management.

In Germany he wanted to change the profession from Aircraft Maintenance Engineering to IT but couldn’t get the residence permit to work in the IT sector. He managed an IT job in the Netherlands and moved to the Netherlands in 1968. A girl who was his pen friend helped him in settling down in the Netherlands, who later became his wife. They have one son and a daughter. Despite initial struggle, his life in the Netherlands was very comfortable. He managed to study part time as it was a job with normal office hours.

As home was far away and with no Assamese contact available, he got in touch with the Netherlands-India Association, which was one of the oldest cultural associations of the Netherlands, established in April 1954. He became an active member and then got elected to the Board. During this period he came in contact with the diplomats of the Indian Embassy and other India centric organizations. He got involved with different social and cultural organizations and started building contacts with the Dutch local and central government offices. By then Indians discovered opportunities in the Netherlands and started coming to the Netherlands in large numbers. The new arrivals needed information about Indian facilities.

The Dutch also got interested in Yoga and Indian classical music. India suddenly became the cultural flavour. He became information pointaperson for the Dutch students and public. If the Indian Embassy was not able to give answer to queries, they directed the public to contact Mr Wahid. Indian Tourist Office directed the public to contact Wahidda with their specific questions. He started writing down the questions and also the answers. This was the foundation of his book called Indiawijzer (Guide to India) first published in 1992.The profit of the first edition was donated to the Netherlands-India Association. The first edition was of 142 pages while the second edition of 412 pages was published in 1999. The profit of this edition was donated to an educational foundation from Assam. He is now more or less a walking information source on India related subjects and a fulcrum between different organizations and India.

Some significant work that Wahidda and his foundations have done in Netherlands

  • The information of Indiawijzer was put on the net. After investment of more than 10000 hours, this website of +3000 pages is a wealth of India-specific information. It is updated almost daily and covers the whole of the Netherlands. It has also a section on North East and Assam.
  • Payment of Dutch old age pension (AOW) in India: On 1st January 2000, the Dutch Export Restrictions on Benefits Act (BEU) affected the payment of Dutch Old Age pension (AOW) to be paid in India. However if an agreement is concluded between India and the Netherlands before 1st January 2003, the entitlement will remain unchanged after that date. In 2002 he approached the government of India informing about the change of Dutch law and requested the government to do the needful so that rights for the payment of Dutch Old Age pension (AOW) in India continues. After relentless pursuance this agreement will be signed very soon.
  • Friends of India: This group was established to coordinate between a large number of cultural, trade and commercial organizations that are active in the Netherlands, and devoted to bilateral issues between India and the Netherlands. This society also engages the political leaders to build opinion.
  • Social activities: For many years he played an active role in helping people from South Asia to settle down in the Netherlands and to get familiarized with the way of life there. For 19 years he served as a Board Member of the Netherlands-India Association out of which 15 years as a Secretary. He took the initiative to collect data and design the first website of the Netherlands-India Association. He also helped and guided the creation of the Dutch Indian Youth Association (DIYA).

The Indian community honoured him in 1998 with the “The Golden Jubilee Community Service Award”. In April 2002 he was awarded the coveted Dutch honour, Ridder in de Orde van Oranje-Nassau or the Knighthood of the Order of Orange-Nassau. It was presented on the occasion of the queen’s birthday. For an Indian national it was a rare honour to receive this award, which is normally given only to Dutch nationals for distinguished contributions to socio-economic life in the Netherlands. He was chosen for the award for his efforts in the promotion of multicultural activities in the country.

In Assam he helped set up an educational Trust in the name of his parents. It is meant for Assamese students and for higher studies. Last year the trust helped six students and this year also financial assistance was given to another six. Besides the above trust he is helping few other institutions:

  • Parijat Academy: started in 2003 by social entrepreneur Uttam Teron. The aim of Parijat Academy is to educate the poor and to help eradication of child labour. It has now more than 495 children from nursery to class VIII, mostly belonging to poor tribal communities.
  • This year he helped them to start a weaving centre and a vocational training centre.
  • Pragyalaya : is an orphanage started in 2002 by Late Jugal Bhuyan. Presently it has 275 students (153 male and 122 female). The residential part called Astha, accommodates 85 students (33 girls and 52 boys). He helped them to set up a fishery and a horticulture garden.
  • Society for Health & Educational Development (SHED:) is a residential rehabilitation centre in Guwahati for differently abled children. Currently, there are 15 children. He helped them to acquire a Screen Printing Machine for giving vocational training to the children.
  • Baby Micro financing: supervised and guided by Uttam Teron, he launched this project for the development of economic status of the tribal people in and around Garbhanga, in 2009. This is first step to offer "micro-loans without a string" to the villagers, who don’t have access to institutional finance. The seed money required for the project is provided in the name of Najmun Nisa Trust.

Another accomplishment which he is very proud of is to furnish historical evidence that the name Assam was not coined by the British and existed before the British came to Assam. In a Dutch museum he discovered a map of Eastern part of India cartographed in 1661 AD, where the name Assam was clearly mentioned. He also discovered the autobiography of Frans Van Der Heyden, a Dutch sailor shipwrecked in the bay of Bengal and was forced to fight in the army of Mir Jumla. He was in Assam in 1663 and the book was published in 1675.

He is also very happy to be able to campaign in opening a TOFEL examination centre in Tezpur University, Assam.

What he has to say to today’s youth:

“I belong to a different generation. Hence I don’t think I have the right baggage to give advice to the present generation who has different sets of expectations and have to face new type of challenges. I can mention a few of the important points which were handed down to me by my elders and friends and which I picked up during my travel through different roads. They are:

Firstly, don’t worry about what the society expects from you. Be true to yourself, your beliefs and your values. You have to live your life and do something that has some meaning to you. It is not easy to follow and fulfill your own dreams. But it is very satisfying.

Secondly, In the world there were no short cuts to success nor in future there will be. One has to work very hard to achieve one’s goal. Don’t believe that you are entitled to something. You have to earn what you get.

In third place, You should do work that you love to do not what others expects you to do. You should do something because you love doing it.

My Fourth suggestion: Don’t ever stop learning. Everything you do in life is short-lived, transitory. You should have the courage to stand behind your conviction and move away from following the crowd. Be humble and recognize what you have.

In fifth place, do one thing at a time. To start with do little things at a time that makes you proud of yourself. You will have faith in your capacity when you have a few achievements to your credit – however small and insignificant they might be. This will make you accepted, respected and welcome. “

He told me that the mantra in his life has been-Turn to the Sun and the shadow will turn itself.

His positive vibes are infectious. From Assam Association, Delhi we wish him many more years of ‘Vanaprasthi’ life, the phase in which he embarked on a mission of giving back to the society.