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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 44, October 22, 2011

Lest We Forget

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Several noted personalities in different fields of activity have recently departed from our midst.

GHAZAL’S golden voice was stilled when Jagjit Singh, 70, passed away on October 10 in Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital where he was admitted on September 18 after suffering a brain haemorrhage; PM Manmohan Singh, in his tribute, aptly pointed out that Jagjit Singh, “by making ghazals accessible to everyone, …… gave joy and pleasure to millions of music lovers in India and abroad”. Founder of Apple Inc and tech visionary Steve Jobs, 56, logged out of life on October 5; summoning his trade-mark eloquence President Barack Obama described him as “among the greatest of American inventors—brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it”. Wangari Maathai, 71, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for combining environmentalism with social activism, died in Nairobi on September 25 after a protected struggle with cancer; as an environmentalist, feminist, politician, anti-corruption campaigner and human rights advocate, she was doubtless Africa’s most famous and widely respected woman and founded in her country, Kenya, the Green Belt Movement through the instrument of which she mobilised poor women for over 30 years to plant 30 million trees. Nawab of Pataudi ‘Tiger’ Mansoor Ali Khan, 70, the ace cricketer under whose captaincy India recorded its first overseas Test victory in New Zealand in 1967, breathed his last in New Delhi’s Ganga Ram Hospital on September 23; according to lyricist Javed Akhtar, “Tiger Pataudi was class, dignity and talent personified”. Jehangir Sabavala, 89, the aristocratic and gentleman painter of Mumbai with a warm heart, died on September 2 at the city’s Breach Candy Hospital after battling cancer for three years. And on May 13, 2011, hours after Mamata Banerjee’s incredible success in routing the Left Front in the West Bengal Assembly polls, theatre legend Badal Sircar, 86 (whose Ebong Indrajit and Baki Itihas left a lasting effect on the Bengal cultural scene), silently passed away in North Kolkata as the city was rejoicing the ‘change’ in the State’s political arena.

However, several other figures, well-known in our political, social, cultural and administrative circles, have also left of late. Prominent among them are B.G. Deshmukh, M.K. Pandhe, Ananta Maji, V.P. Sathe, Gursharan Singh, Ram Dayal Munda, Shashi Bhushan and Bhagwat Jha Azad.

REPUTED civil servant B.G. Deshmukh, 82, former Cabinet Secretary and erstwhile Principal Secretary to three PMs, besides having served as the Labour Secretary at the Centre and as the Chief Secretary of Maharashtra, died in Pune on August 7, 2011. He was among the few old-style administrators who contributed substantially towards shaping policy with meticulous diligence without seeking anything in return. Belonging to the 1951 batch of the IAS, he rose to become the Chairman of the International Labour Organisation’s Governing Board. One has closely watched him function as the Labour Secretary and one always marvelled at the thorough manner in which he discharged his responsibilities without fear or favour. In his other capacities he retained the same trait so as to emerge as one of the country’s foremost bureaucrats whose exceptional sense of probity remained a distinct feature throughout his professional life and beyond.

As former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla, who worked under him in service, has recalled in his tribute to Deshmukh, his books (including A Cabinet Secretary Looks Back) revealed “an elegant mind and quiet determination”; he then adds: “…. While tragedy (losing his only daughter and wife in the brief span of a few years) and setbacks were….fellow travellers with high office, he brought to his duties an unusual sense of commitment, which I was rarely to witness again.”

DISTINGUSIHED trade unionist M.K. Pandhe, 86, passed away at New Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital on August 20, 2011. A founder leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), he was its General Secretary from 1991 to 2003 and its President from 2003 to 2010; earlier when he was one of the secretaries of the AITUC, he was close to Mainstream and occasionally contributed pieces in this journal, something he fondly remembered in later years. He was a member of the CPI-M Polit-Bureau from 1998 till his death.

While he played a leading role in organising the workers in the unorganised sector, he made a valuable contribution in unifying the organised trade union movement.

What is also striking is that Pandhe enjoyed a close rapport and working relationship with fellow Maharashtrian B.G. Deshmukh when the latter was the Union Labour Secretary; incidentally both passed away in close succession in the same month (August) this year.

AUGUST also saw the demise of one of legendary leaders of the Bengal peasantry of Tebhaga fame, Ananta Maji, 94, in Medinipur town of West Bengal. He died on August 29, 2011. Both Ananta Maji and his wife, Bimala (who is above eighty now), played a seminal role in the peasant movements in Medinipur district of the then undivided Bengal in the forties; among these movements the historic Tebhaga movement was the most prominent and momentous struggle.

Ananta Maji was born in a reasonably well-to-do peasant family in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution which heralded the birth of the world’s first worker-peasant state. While doing his B.Sc in college he came in touch with the Congress leader and one of the founders of the Communist Party in Medinipur district, Deben Das, and thus associated himself with the freedom struggle and communist movement. On leaving college he became a wholetime worker of the Communist Party and plunged into the peasant movement in the district. Till his last breath he maintained his links with the peasantry.

He was persecuted as a freedom fighter and Communist, and suffered imprisonment several times during British rule and in the post-independence period. The Government of India subsequently recognised him as a freedom fighter.

Following the split in the Indian communist movement he remained in the CPI and actively worked to rebuild the party weakened by the division. He was elected as the General Secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha’s West Bengal Committee and as one of the Vice-Presidents of the AIKS. A movement was launched under the aegis of the CPI and Kisan Sabha in 1969-70 to reclaim benami land in West Bengal; he was one of the principal leaders of that movement. In 1978 he was elected to the CPI’s West Bengal State Secretariat and National Council but he resigned from the party’s National Council in 1980 and devoted his energy in building the All India Communist Party in the State; he was its founder-member in 1992. Thereafter he retired from active political life due to old age and ill health but retained his abiding faith in Marxism-Leninism. He and his wife were felicitated by the CPI on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Telangana and Tebhaga peasant revolts. They were also felicitated at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the Kisan Sabha and fiftieth anniversary of the Tebhaga movement. Both had become legends in their lifetime due to their daring exploits during the Tebhaga struggle in particular.

On his part Ananta Maji never lost his sense of optimism in the future despite the vicissitudes in the international communist movement. He is survived by his wife, Bimala, two sons and three daughters. His last rites were performed at the Medinipur crematorium on August 31, 2011,

IN the evening of September 23, 2011 eminent Congress leader V.P. Sathe, 86, died of a heart attack in Gurgaon. Born in Nashik in 1925 he joined the freedom movement at the age of 17. In politics he first became a member of the PSP in 1948 but subsequently entered the Congress along with PSP leader Ashok Mehta in the sixties with the public declaration of support for Jawaharlal Nehru’s democratic socialism; he never wavered in this cause. In later years he was to work actively in the Congress under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

He was first elected to the Lok Sabha from Akola, Maharashtra in 1972 and represented Vidarbha till 1994. A vocal advocate of a separate State of Vidarbha till his death, he was bitterly critical of the Congress High Command for having gone back on its promise of Statehood for the region.

Having functioned as the Deputy Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party during the Emergency, Sathe became the Information and Boradcasting Minister in the last Indira Gandhi Government on her return to power in 1980; that was the time when he played a major role in introducing colour TV in the country in the run-up to the 1982 Asian Games.

It was he who had once campaigned in favour of a presidential form of government and started a nationwide debate on the issue. Later when the Congress failed to secure a clear majority in a general election he began another debate on forming a “national” government with a select group of leaders from all the major parties. He, like many other Congress leaders, vehemently opposed the V.P. Singh Government for having implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations on reservation for OBCs in higher education and jobs and was seen shouting down Ramvilas Paswan on the subject on the floor of the Lok Sabha. He also sat on an indefinite fast demanding that Parliament pass a resolution to achieve “economic self-reliance”; he further demanded that at least 10 per cent of the country’s rich be brought into the tax net so as to ensure that revenue from direct taxes become more than that from indirect taxes thereby helping to bridge the deficit.

As senior Congress leader Oscar Fernandes has observed, Sathe “never hesitated to voice his opinion”. Only last May he had proposed that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra join active politics to assist her mother and brother in guaranteeing the return to power of the Congress on its own. He would thus be remembered as an outspoken politician and a colourful one at that as is exemplified in his autobiography entitled Memoirs of a Rationalist; he also wrote more than half-a-dozen books including India to be Global Power.

QUITE a different personality who passed away in Chandigarh on September 27, 2011 was prominent theatre personality Gursharan Singh, 82; he played an outstanding role in mobilising the rural masses of Punjab and raising their consciousness on political, social and cultural issues through the vehicle of drama. Born on September 16, 1929 in Multan, he was educated in Lahore and subsequently after partition in Amritsar; thereafter he qualified as a cement technologist and worked tirelessly in building the Bhakra-Nangal dam. His foray into the world of theatre took place in 1959 when a group of dignitaries, including Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, had come to Nangal to view the dam. Several artistes had also come there to present a cultural programme before the dignitaries. That was presented before a select audience and the workers at the dam were barred from coming there despite Gursharan’s insistence that they too be called in; the authorities refused, saying that the “working class does not understand culture”. The following day Gursharan asked the artistes who had come there to stay back so that they could perform before the workers of the dam; some of them did so in deference to his request—and the performance was organised by him. That was when he decided to make arrangements for such performances before the people at large.

As many as 175 plays of Gursharan Singh are now available in seven volumes; the eighth volume is to be out shortly. These are based mostly on short stories and news reports.

During the Emergency he produced a play which was an adaptation of Pakistani playwright Najam Hussein Sayeed’s “Takht Lahore”; as a consequence he was soon arrested and suspended from service. He was released after about a month, and thereafter he produced other plays using other metaphors and even religious parables—these plays were staged in different villages.

He was reinstated after the Emergency was lifted and got his job back. But in 1981, when there was a movement against bus far hike in the State, he was rearrested and charged with training young people how to blow up bridges. On his release he resigned from service and devoted full time to theatre.

He boldly fought militancy in Punjab and spoke out openly against Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale through his plays. His play “Hit List” that he produced after the assassination of Sumit Singh, the editor of Preet Lari, and his plays against Bhindranwale evoked enthusiastic and wide response from the State’s rural citizens. After ‘Operation Bluestar’ and K.P.S. Gill’s “success” in rooting out militancy he produced plays against enforced disappearances and police excesses in Punjab.

In 1987 he produced a TV serial “Bhai Manna Singh” whose 17 episodes were a roaring success.

In 1989 he moved to Chandigarh from Amritsar and organised performances of his plays in different villages projecting the values of progressive culture to fight the cultural degeneration that had engulfed the State. His Chandigarh School of Drama performed such plays that also upheld the legacy of Bhagat Singh. In fact Gursharan realised the imperative need to reclaim the ideals of Bhagat Singh and did so through his cultural movement as well as reproduction of Bhagat Singh’s “Why I am an Atheist” in Punjabi and its distribution in thousands across the State.

Thirty rural theatre companies are currently performing his plays in his style in Punjab. For the last few years he focused attention on the most marginalised sections of society and had his plays performed in Dalit bustees. A Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Gursharan Singh, through his phenomenal work in the field of culture in the State, emerged as the cultural conscience of Punjab.

He had joined the undivided CPI when he was barely sixteen but did not remain a formal party member for long. Even though the leaders of the Left establishments were not too comfortable with him, he retained his bonds of personal friendship with one of the most selfless Communist leaders in the country, Punjab CPI leader and former Minister in the State Satyapal Dang. Renowned Marxist scholar, ideologue and activist Prof Randhir Singh was his brother-in-law. He was also a lifelong friend of the IPTA.

His ashes were immersed at Husseiniwala where the ashes of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru had been immersed after their execution by the British on March 23, 1931.

RAJYA SABHA member Ram Dayal Munda, 72, an eminent educationist, cultural personality and avowed champion of tribal interests besides being a key player in the formation of the Jharkhand State, died in Ranchi on September 29, 2011 after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was also a member of the National Advisory Council.

A former Vice-Chancellor of the Ranchi University, Munda was a person of varied interests. A recipient of the Padma Shri in 2010, he authored several books on tribal languages, culture and politics of the Jharkhand region; he won the Sahitya Akademi Award as well. At the same time his passion for the nagara (drum) and flute, which he played at various public functions and election meetings, was well known.

Born at Diuri village, about 60 km from Ranchi, in 1939, he did his Ph.D in Linguistics from the University of Chicago in 1970 after completing his MA in Anthropology from the Ranchi University in 1963. Following a teaching stint at the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, he returned to the Ranchi University where he headed the Department of Tribal and Regional Languages before becoming the Vice-Chancellor in 1985.

With the demand for Jharkhand as a separate State coming up on the national scene, he provided the intellectual base to the movement for Jharkhand’s Statehood. It was he who helped set up the All Jharkhand Students Union as well as the Jharkhand Coordination Committee. As the AJSU-JCC agitation mounted, the then PM, Rajiv Gandhi, opened the doors for a dialogue on the issue and Munda was made a member of the Committee on Jharkhand Matters that was formed shortly.

Munda did not succeed in electoral politics having unsuccessfully contested the Jharkhand Assembly polls from Ranchi as an Independent in 1985 and the Lok Sabha polls from Khunti on the JD (U) ticket in 2004. However, the Union Government nominated him to the Rajya Sabha last year.

EMINENT freedom fighter and Congressman Shashi Bhushan, 88, passed away in New Delhi on September 30, 2011 after a monthlong illness. He was a noted figure in the Capital’s Congress circles in the late sixties and seventies when he was elected to Parliament twice—in 1967 and 1971; however, he lost to A.B. Vajpayee in 1977 in the post-Emergency Janata wave.

Born in Gwalior in 1924 as Shashi Bhushan Vajpayee, he never used his caste name unlike his illustrious political opponent who rose to become the country’s first and only BJP PM till date. As for Shashi Bhushan, he was witness to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in the Capital’s Birla House on January 30, 1948 and that shaped his politics: he remained a staunch secularist and fought the communal elements in the BJP-RSS with all the strength at his command throughout his life and in this endeavour never hesitated in enlisting support from the Left, especially the CPI, which at one time had forged close relations with him for various causes—from world peace to national regeneration, besides the fight against communalism.

Following her resounding victory on the plank of Garibi Hatao in 1971, Indira Gandhi took the momentous step to insert the word “socialist” in the Constitution’s Preamble and prominent among those who extended wholehearted and unequivocal support to her move in this regard was Shashi Bhushan. The ideas of socialism and secularism had been embedded in his mind since the days of the national movement for emancipation from foreign yoke wherein he had actively participated (working as an undercover in the Army carrying forward the struggle for independence) and suffered imprisonment during the ‘Quit India’ stir. He was close to Aruna Asaf Ali with whom he enjoyed the best of relations. He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 2006.

He worked behind-the-scenes with the objective of reinforcing the Congress even though his espousal of the Emergency and call for a limited dictatorship to tackle the nation’s ills were not only controversial but also evoked sharp criticism in even Congress ranks wedded to progressive ideals. Yet he was, warts and all, a quientessential Congresman of the seventies dedicated to progressive causes like defence of the public sector and crusade against monopoly houses exploiting the nation’s wealth—a rare commodity in today’s Congress organisation where advocacy of laissez-faire dominates the politics.

Before his death he mobilised 4000 freedom fighters to visit sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi to stress that corruption was not limited to public officials and covered the corporate sector as well while urging for introspection of what was happening in the country at large.

He had set up the Institute for Socialist Education several years ago; this too was testimony to his unwavering commitment to the building of a socialist India, a commitment that has been severely weakened in the Congress in recent times.

THE demise of former Bihar CM Bhagwat Jha Azad, 89, in New Delhi on October 3, 2011 marked the end of an era, one in which the Congress had run the State with distinction despite all its weaknesses, shortcomings, deficiencies and mismanagement. He was suffering for long and is survived by his three sons one among whom is cricketer-turned-politician Kirti Azad, the BJP MP from Darbhanga in the State.

Bhagwat Jha Azad was mostly active on the national plane and become a Minister of State for the first time in Indira Gandhi’s Council of Ministers. He thereafter held different portfolios at the Centre and functioned as an able Minister who adopted a no-nonsense approach in carrying out tasks. During Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership he was sent to Bihar as the CM in 1988 at a time when there was instability in the Congress organisation in the State punctuated by frequent changes in chief ministership.

Significantly, despite the anti-Congress sentiment on the rise in the State Bhagwat Jha Azad represented the Bhagalpur constituency in the Lok Sabha six times. He also happened to be the last Congress CM who sought to end the drift in the party in Bihar, even though his stint in Patna as the head of the State Government was brief—from February 1988 to March 1989, that is, just over a year. However, even in that short period of time he was able to establish himself as a “strong and honest” CM who took on the cooperative mafia (thereby annoying a section of the Congress leadership linked to vested interests) as well as the education mafia with the help of competent administrators who subsequently came to occupy top positions in the Government of India with one of them currently serving as the Union Home Secretary.

Bhagwat Jha Azad fell a victim to infighting in the State Congress and had to quit his post of CM in early 1989; in the same year the Bhagalpur riots rocked Bihar dealing a heavy blow to the Congress and enabled Laloo Prasad Yadav to exploit the situation to emerge as the then indisputable leader in the State.

ALL these figures left an indelible impress on our national life through their contributions in varied spheres of work. Their departure from the scene has created a deep void that would be really difficult to fill.

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