My Grandfather's Tryst with Mandal and the Marginalised
ALLAHABAD: It was back in the summer of ’98, my extended family had gathered in our Allahabad home. From the sound of it, it was convivial family gathering filled with pleasantries and “grown-up” talks. I was only eight years old when I walked in the living room, to understand for the first time, “Mandal Commission”.
Little did I know, that these two words had defined the destiny of my family along with vast majority of Indians, who could look towards the Indian state no longer as their oppressor but saviour.
To my surprise the room that time was already resembling a battlefield. Trenches were dug-up. My aunts, grand-aunts, uncles had huddled up in one camp and my grandfather Vishwanath Pratap Singh, dressed in a comfortable white kurta and loose pyjamas sitting alone on a sofa on the other side. As you could imagine topic of discussion was India’s affirmative action program, Mandal Commission.
I sat next to my grandfather. Each five minutes a mortar of words exploded near my reticent grandfather and then my grandaunt said, “Raja Bhadur, You have betrayed us, and look where the thakurs are now. Your decisions has changed the fate of the upper castes forever.” Suddenly it seemed like the hot ‘loo’ wind sneaked in from the high ceiling windows, I could see slight perspiration on my mother’s forehead and all eyes were turned to the Mandal Messiah, to defend him once again, this time only against his family.
I stared straight into his eyes as they regained their fervour and yet his reply remained equanimous and mild, “ We thakurs have taken a sacred oath to protect society; especially the exploited and the depressed. We must understand that our hands have wielded the whip over the lower classes for 5000 years, denied them education and prosperity, now those very hands have to open the doors of power for them. We together must now lay the foundations of socially empowered India. I have simply performed my duty. Remember we sacrificed for the millions of the underprivileged children of this country, so they can get justice.”
Today on his 85th birthday, this unforgettable lesson in social justice still guides me. With little written or documented about Singh, almost no effort has been made to remember him. Whether one is riding the OBC electoral wave, or trying their hand at coalition politics, his friends and enemies seemed no different in remembering Singh’s contributions to making of India 2016.
Aggrieved with betrayal of their leader, Singh’s former subjects, the people of erstwhile estate of Daiya-Manda based in the Trans-Yamuna area of Allahabad, Koraon, clansmen and kin have dedicated 2016, the 85th birth anniversary year of VP Singh, to honour their leader.The Bharat Ratna for B R Ambedkar, or arrest of the LK Advani and saving the Babri Masjid, Raja Bahadur through his efforts has made Koraon region proud and known all over India for being the birthplace of this great social visionary.
Hundreds of young volunteers of Koraon area joining hands beyond the boundaries of caste and religion to form a working committee ‘Rajparivar’. The role of this committee is to organise events all throughout the year to honour Singh’s ideals and retrace some of VP Singh’s early steps. As Singh’s grandson I am also an active member of this group and have worked tirelessly to bring his vision of social justice, secularism and socialism alive.
VP Singh’s most significant contribution to social justice in India was his decision to implement the Mandal commission report. Two decades after we can shed the rhetoric of “forward - backward” and “political opportunism” and clearly see that VP Singh gave the vast under-privileged majority of Indians affirmative action, the only difference being instead of colour, caste was the denominating factor in India.
Singh in several public meeting during the ’88-’89 election campaign promised to implement the report and was only looking for the right time. Realising that the government may topple, Singh knew that the stormy Monsoon session of 7th August,1990 may be the last chance to for him to implement the report. I knew that history may perhaps convolute his story, so one evening I asked him, Why the affirmative action? To which he said, “Whatever they may tell you, but know this in your heart, I did it to fulfil my promise I made to people of India, a promise to be just and fair” he told me.
To carry forward his dream, the ‘Rajparivar’ group gave a call for Mandal Milan, an event to commemorate the affirmative action program and hundreds answered. 11th January, 2016, 3000 people from all sections of society assembled to pay homage to the memory of the former Raja Bhadur of Manda but they came not as a Patel or Nishad or Brahmin, but rather as one people, who came to give Singh his rightful due.
It was during the meeting, I came across many stories of VP Singh’s early Gandhian life. It was during the drought of 1956-57 that Acharya Bhave was walking through Allahabad area on his Bhoodan mission. A 26 year old VP Singh, followed his first guru, to initiate a massive saramdhan(gift of labour) activities in the area.
Many people remembered Singh spending long hours in the torrid summer heat working, repairing ponds and wells around their homes. After giving away all his land to the Bhoodan movement. He launched a pad-yatra to build the first People’s school in Koraon. He walked across hundreds of kilometres going from home to home seeking donation for this school. By People’s school, he meant a Gandhian school that was owned by the community. Today the school is being run by the government. Many recounted walking with him.
Although born in a royal house, VP Singh, had a disciplined life from his early childhood. I was fortunate to hear the tale of Mr Cook, my grandfather martinet teacher. The story had passed down from grandfather to father and now to grandson, and finally the Milan I heard it.
“One summer afternoon about 3 pm, my grandfather was in his early teens then, he was visited by his cook and a few clansmen. The visitors were asked to wait as they were told my grandfather was out. They were surprised as it was hot day and the young King should have been resting. In ten minutes, they see Mr Cook on a horse cantering inside the palace gates and behind him a young VP Singh labouring with a heavy backpack. This was the life my grandfather lived. He understood pain and physical hardships because he himself endured all of them.
At the Milan, after the speeches, the hall was filled with nostalgia and the people pledged to make Koraon free of communal forces and strive towards developments for all. After the meeting and a long gap of a quarter century “Raja nahi faqir the, desh ki takdeer the”, (He was not King but a hermit, the destiny of India) echoed in his birthplace.
For the people of his home, the implementation was not a surprise, but only a continuation of VP Singh’s vision. All those who have known him intimately, will vouch for the same.
VP Singh was a crusader against social injustice and even cancer and renal failure couldn’t conquer him. After his prime ministerial tenure from 1989-1990, his vision expanded. He had a much deeper knowledge of the forces that were trying to tear the nation. Apart from the BJP, he knew corporate hegemony was the second most destructive force undermining the integrity of India.
One evening, a little before his 75th birthday in 2006, he called to his room in a rather pensive mood. After a long silence, I asked what troubled him.
“The Indian small farmers are hardest and most honest workers, their toils and bread labour feed India and but most of them barely manage enough to feed their families. Any person or corporation who exploits the Indian farmers, commits an egregious sin on the very soul of India,” he said.
He had foreseen the dacoity of the Indian farm land by corporations. His health troubled him but his spirit drove him to his last fight, a fight for sovereignty for the Indian farmers. It was shortly after that day that Dadri agitations flared up and Singh leant himself to the cause. He was prescient that if the “government fails to acquire land legally, they will arm twist the farmers for corporate profits. In the age of corporate control, gold is the only god.”
India by then was already aligning to be manufacturing hub of the world. But what troubled Singh was not industrialisation, but the rampant maldevelopment at the cost of the Indian farmers. “In a little over ten years, 150,000 farmers had committed suicide is this not development, this is a disease,” he said furiously in private to the “development” model.
He believed that the commodification of agriculture has pushed a large section of rural India “off the land” and into the urban slums and manufacturing hubs. While other half of Indian farmers inching towards debt, disease and malnutrition crisis, the corporations are slowly gaining control over India.
By 2008, he knew that the subsequent governments would drive corporate agendas in the guise of government policy. Observing the situation he had said,” The Farmers will be new raw material for the industrial machine, for “development” and “progress”. The only way the we can defend them is by making them self sufficient”.
It took me a long time to understand how could you make the farmers “self-sufficient”. But the answer was a simple one. Traditional agriculture and organic farming was only way, the farmers could gain prosperity and food security.
To carry forth this idea, the working committee organised an organic farmers’ rally on the 21st of March 2016. With over 5000 farmers at the meeting, this was the first time in the area a Jaivik Kisan Manch was created to make Allahabad the first organic city of UP.
VP Singh was a champion of social justice, who sacrificed his lands, positions and life for social change. His vision took way beyond the corridors of power and straight into the hearts and homes of the exploited and depressed. He cared for the powerless, and perhaps that is the reason India has been made to forgotten him.
It is astonishing despite being a revolutionary prime minister who sacrificed everything for India, he is rarely written about or mentioned. Upper caste supremacists and communal demagogues would never forgive him for breaking their hegemony by freeing the backwards classes from their control. Maybe that is the reason, not even a single memorial has been dedicated to his name.
As grandson, who is trying to recreate his grandfather life, I am rather lost as his achievements have been hid away and his personality besmeared with personal attacks.
But perhaps he wouldn’t mind that. He was out to change India, and he did so quite successfully.
Indians may not still comprehend his role in the making of our modern nation, but there will always be his people who shared his vision, who knew he was man of dignity, who lived his life for ideals and was never afraid of tossing away power for them either. There always will be, I hope, people who still believe in social justice and truth, who may not remember his name but continue to fight for his ideals.
For he on the question of personal fame and glory, in jest would quote Ram Vilas Paswan and say, “Don’t worry my grandson, in 200 years my name would be written in gold.”
Some of us are waiting for that day. To see VP Singh, the prophet of Indian politics get his due share.