Mr Hemant Gokhale, who retired as a judge of the Supreme court in 2014, is among the more unusual members of the Indian judiciary. He has been an activist since his days as a law student during the days of the influx of refugees from the then East Pakistan.
In 1971 he, along with Hussein Dalwai and some of his other friends in the ‘Yuvak Kranti Dal’, a socialist youth wing, had gone to the refugee camps in West Bengal .‘…we went to the refugee camp with brooms and baskets for our cleanliness drive. We made groups and went into different sections of the camp. All the filth – excreta, vomit, garbage, etc – strewn all over had to be cleaned up. The refugees were looking at us with curiosity, with admiration in their eyes for the white-collar and well-dressed people like us doing this work, he recalls.
He also saw the exploitation of tea plantation workers in the then Naxalbari area of West Bengal drawn there by his student friend Sharit Bhowmik who was doing research in the area who later became a prominent sociologist and architect of the central government’s policy for street vendors.
It was not easy to reach the area in those days. There was no Farakka railway bridge .in those days. One had to cross the Ganga by a steamer from New Jalpaiguri railway station to reach the station on the other side and take another train to Jalpaiguri station. And it also involved a long walk on both the sides.
The first thing he spotted in Calcutta was a big portrait of Mao outside the railway station and then there were many more all over the city. In Mumbai just a couple of such portraits led to the police whitewashing them, he recalls and says a similar exercise in Calcutta would have needed much water from the Hooghly.
In 2020 he visited Bangladesh on a lecture tour and he has given a graphic account of both his visits in an absorbing, informative book in English Biplabi Bangla Sonar Bangla. He met so many colleagues of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the slain former Prime Minister of Bangla Desh.
We get so many insights into the history and life of the country and its close relationship with India. One of his most striking visits was to a school in Kurigram village in East Pakistan where Gandhian Vinoba Bhave addressed a meeting during his pada yatra, walking tour as part of the Bhoodan movement, seeking donation of land for the poor. He was allowed to walk through East Pakistan on his way to West Bengal in 1962.
Gokhale met retired Air Commodore Ishfaq Ilahi Choudury who was a student at Kurigram in those days and his father was posted there as a policeman. He recalled that Vinoba was greeted with love and as a saint, he was seen as a Pir by the Muslims and a sanyasi by the Hindus His father had a tough time controlling the crowds, so many people waned to touch Vinoba’s feet. The largest chunk of land was donated by his friend’s father who was a Muslim League M.P.
Even after an illustrious judicial career, Gokhale remains a simple man, he can be seen sitting quietly without bothering about protocol attending classical music concerts and public meetings.
In Bangla Desh he also visited Noakhali area where Mahatma Gandhi worked amidst communal turmoil to restore peace. There is now a local Gandhi ashram in the area which runs several schools and does a lot of social work.
He also writes graphically about his visit to Rabindranath Tagore’s house, the house of actor Suchitra Sen which local people wrested back from occupation by Jamaat e Islami and the event was celebrated with a procession. There is a photograph of the procession and so many other interesting sites in the country. He also visited the shrine of Baul singer Lalon Shah Fakir, who was a cultural bridge between Bangla Desh and India,
The instances of social injustice that Mr Gokhale witnessed during his 1971 journey to Calcutta and North Bengal, which he mentions, are noteworthy. For instance, the pitiable condition of the labourers in the tea gardens at Jalpaiguri; the Anglicized zamindar’s totally superficial imitation of the British; and when he (Mr Gokhale) gave tea to the labourer Ranbahadur’s naked son, which brought tears to Ranbahadur’s eyes. On the other hand, he writes about the Aambadi tea garden: ‘…there was the cooperative club of the planters. There, the desi and foreign sahebs were playing polo under the blue sky sitting on horses. This Banarhat Club is a thousand miles north of Calcutta, nights over here are celebrated with foreign liquor, and with dances
As for the unceasing influx of immigrants from Bangladesh into India had led to a negative image of that country in India, there is an interesting comment by Dr Madhav Godbole , former union home secretary, in his introduction to the book. Justice Gokhale’s book could help change that image. Bangladesh is being praised internationally for its progress in the last few years. But it is difficult to gauge from mere statistics whether or not a country is undergoing real social and ideological change. Justice Gokhale’s book fills that gap.
Biplab Bangla. Sonar Bangla. Published by Inking Innovations. Price rs 280. Pages 170.
Mr Gokhale’s activism as young man reminds one of the days of judicial activism in India. Considering that much of our judiciary is now so obedient this report in New York Times in 2013 seems unbelievable. Gardiner Harris wrote in the paper that India’s judges have sweeping powers and a long history of judicial activism that would be all but unimaginable in the United States. In recent years, judges required Delhi’s auto-rickshaws to convert to natural gas to help cut down on pollution,[closed much of the country’s iron-ore-mining industry to cut down on corruption and ruled that politicians facing criminal charges could not seek re-election. Indeed, India’s Supreme Court and Parliament have openly battled for decades, with Parliament passing multiple constitutional amendments to respond to various Supreme Court rulings.
Apart from that Mr Gokhale is so active socially along with his wife Meena Gokhale who taught Marathi in Ruia college. I met them most recently in the centenary celebrations of Mr K.J. Purohit or Shantaram, noted Marathi short story writer when Mrs Gokhale spoke on his literature.
Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book on public transport