Debashish Mukerji’s new book The Disruptor How Vishwanath Pratap Singh shook India has come at a rather topical time as the OBC reservation issue is back in the news.
I have another reason to relate to the subject as I covered the OBC agitation in the 1980s in Maharashtra for the Times of India. And I had occasion to preside over a meeting addressed by Mr Singh in the Bombay Union of Journalists which was very active in those days and its hall centrally located in the Hutatma Chowk or Flora Fountain area used to be a venue for several meetings and press conferences. I was then the president of the BUJ, no credit to me really as there were few claimants to the post. My former colleague M.J. Pandey continues to fight cases of journalists in the courts to this day.
The OBC issue had cut across religious arena also as there was an organization fighting for Muslim OBCs and I covered several meetings addressed by Dilip Kumar, film actor for the cause. One of his lines I remember, he used to tell the audience, All has created this earth for all, not only for Muslims.
Mr Mukerji is a journalist for over forty years and has worked on the theme painstakingly.
A less known but important role played by Mr Singh in initiating the plan for the Right to Information and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act NAREGA is mentioned in the book quoting two major activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey. History will remember Mr Singh for what we call people’s politics, they say.
Indeed the OBC cause helped give representation to various castes which had been earlier denied their due. In Maharashtra politics earlier had been dominated by the Marathas. Chhagan Bhujbal of the Mali community, horticulturists, became a major force of the OBC agitation in Maharashtra with his forceful speeches but later he had to go to jail on corruption charges and is now back as a minister. In those days the most active spokesman for the OBC movement was Janardan Patil, a very slim, simple looking man from the masses from the downmarket Chunabhatti area in Mumbai.Currently, the most vociferous spokesman for the cause Hari Narke, an academic who has done major work in publishing the writings of Dr Ambedkar and Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Phule’s wife Savitribai, a pioneer in women’s education with her work in Pune in the 19th entury.
Mr Singh was very different from other politicians in many ways. He was adopted into a princely family and a sudden separation from his parents must have had some effect on the young mind. He gave away most of his land to Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement for donation of land for distribution for the poor in the fifties. Bhave remains an underrated figure in India, he raised extremely pertinent issues about land, all land belongs to people. What a contrast to our bankrupt governments which want to sell government land to greedy private enterprises instead of using it for public amenities.
Some small details mentioned in the book are significant to understand life in general. Private property can create serious problems and after all the power he enjoyed in life V.P. died a bit disillusioned given the property dispute in his family late in his life. He then wished that he had been better a college teacher or someone like that. Our attitude to wild animals has improved to some extent, the upper class went about hunting, in those days and V.P.’s own brother went for one such hunt and got caught in an encounter with a dacoit and was killed, leading to V.P.’s resignation as chief minister.
The author does well to mention that commerce minister D.P. Chattopadhyaya was Mr V.P. Singh’s first stint in the union ministry. D.P. was also a scholar and the author perhaps should have mentioned that there were two scholars of the same name from Kolkata then.
He also does well to describe the unpleasant conditions in jail when V.P. was imprisoned during the agitation against the Janata party regime. In the toilet there were faeces, lumps of excreta of prisoners, layer upon layer. But he refused bail and spent a week inside.
It is also interesting to note that Mr Singh had never heard of Amitabh Bachhan when he was aleady a star and later became his political rival in Allahabad.
Regarding V.P.’s campaign against the Ambanis and black money which somewhat annoyed Rajiv Gandhi, Umashankar Dikshit senior politicians told him that black money was crucial to a political party, a walking stick for politicians and when he criticized Rajiv on the issue, he was trying to take away his walking stick.
Mr Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book on the importance of public transport and the damage caused by automobile dominance