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As friend, philosopher, guide, Achyutbhai made me aware of 'elusive' Gujarat model

By Rajiv Shah 

I had just joined as assistant editor of the Times of India, Ahmedabad, in June 1993. Though born in this city, as it would happen in traditional homes where mother gives birth to her child in her paternal house, I was absolutely unaware of its milieu, its culture, its people. In fact, I was basically a Delhi-ite. While I could read Gujarati, though with some difficulty, whenever I would try speaking with my relatives, they would immediately advise me to better switch to Hindi, as they wouldn’t understand what I was trying to say in my mother tongue.
While as assistant editor my job was to look after the paper, frankly, I was more interested in understanding Gujarat and writing about on issues nagging the state. I would plan out my day in such a way that I meet scholars, activists and politicians in the first part of the day, before reaching my office in Ahmedabad. The only person I knew closely then was my college friend, Prof Biswaroop Das, as excellent academic. He lived in Surat in South Gujarat, though he would often spend his weekends with his family in Ahmedabad. Thanks to Das, I got several contacts to whom I could interact closely with.
One of them was Achyut Yagnik, who passed away on August 5 at the age of 77, when I was in Delhi for a personal work. A friend, philosopher and guide ever since 1993, he headed the NGO Setu Centre For Social Knowledge And Action. At that point of time, his organisation worked mostly on environmental issues in the Saurashtra region. In my very first meeting, he extensively briefed me on how the coastal areas of the region were being destroyed because of the establishment of cement factories, which needed limestone reserves.
Achyutbhai, as all would address him, told me why limestone was extremely important for preserving sweet water in the coastal areas. “It acts like a sponge”, he told me. If indiscriminate limestone mining continues, it would lead to salinity ingress in the green patches of coastal Saurashtra. That was the first lesson of the type of development model that the Gujarat authorities were seeking to undertake. His insights on environmental issues, which came during more sittings with him, helped me do articles, and also invite article for the Times of India, get them published in the paper, some of which became extremely controversial.
One of articles that I prepared – and which became controversial with echoes being heard right up to the Gujarat High Court – was mining being carried out on the borders of Gir forest, which houses Asia’s only surviving lion. Another was on how maldharis or cattle breeders, who lived in Gir forests for centuries, were sought to be evicted against their wishes under the pretext of preserving the green cover. “This would have deleterious effect on the forest. It would break the man-animal-green cover cycle, continuing for centuries”, he told me.
In fact, Achyutbhai was my immediate face of Gujarat. If I wouldn’t understand anything – be it caste, culture, society, people or environment – I would reach up to him for help on phone, or would meet him, if needed. He would provide me with a detailed brief on almost anything that I wanted know. His encyclopaedic knowledge, which he would reveal while dotting it with personal experiences, was truly astonishing.
Though not an academic – he was an activist trained under top-notch academic and leader of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties Rajni Kothari – his understand of Gujarat was such that some of the top academics and activists across India would essentially come down to him for consultation before going to anyone else. And there were those who would do their PhD thesis making him as his unofficial guide!
One of them whom I know is Shalini Randheria, professor of anthropology and sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, who prepared her PhD thesis on rural Dalits in two North Gujarat districts, Mehsana and Sabarkantha, focusing on Rohits (chamars), loosely tanners.
The thesis points to how the Rohits as part of their “duty” in a caste-ridden society were supposed to manually dispose of dead cattle. Achyutbhai handed over the draft of the thesis, and I did a story and a blog for the Times of India on it. The thesis was published by the Oxford University Press as “Carrion and corpses: Conflict in categorizing untouchability in Gujarat”.
Another senior academic whom I know, and to whom Achyutbhai was a great help was Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly, currently professor at the Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad. While at that time she was researching on Gir maldharis, her recent book, “Protest Movements and Citizens’ Rights in Gujarat (1970-2010)”, which I reviewed in Counterview in 2016, was published by the prestigious Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla.
The book traces the events which were close to Achyutbhai’s heart – the Navnirman movement of 1973-74, which proved to be precursor to the JP movement; the two anti-reservation movements of 1981 and 1986; the pro-Narmada dam Ferkuva movement of early 1990s; and the 2009-10 Mahuva movement against the Nirma Cement Plant in the Saurashtra region.
A month before his death, I asked him to write his autobiography; he could record it on mobile. He smiled away: he never kept a mobile set
One of top Indian activists who initially worked under Achyutbhai’s NGO was Medha Patkar. He would tell me how in Ahmedabad she would move around on her bicycle campaigning on Narmada and how she was reach out to the sections sought to be displaced because of the Narmada dam. She later formed the famed Narmada Bachao Andolan, which became the main NGO organising dam-displaced people in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
Initially a journalist with the “Gujarat Samachar”, and highly respected by Madhavsinh Solanki, perhaps the most well read of all Gujarat chief ministers, Achyutbhai was one of the main activists who opposed the anti-reservation movement of the 1980s, propped up by the saffron brigade. It turned into a major Hindu-Muslim communal conflict, bringing the BJP to power in Gujarat.
I went to Gandhinagar in 1997, but kept in touch with Achyutbhai, reaching up to him for conversation every time I would visit my office in Ahmedabad once a fortnight. All senior journalists living outside Gujarat – ranging from Rajdeep Sardesai to Sheela Bhatt – would come to him for consultation on any major event concerning Gujarat, including the 2002 communal riots or the politics around it, which was to help Narendra Modi to firmly established his leadership in India. However, he would complain: "In Gujarat, we have mainly telephone journalists... they lack depth..." 
I reviewed for the Times of India two of Achyutbhai’s books (co-author: Suchitra Sheth), published by Penguins, “Shaping of Modern Gujarat” and “Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity”, both well-researched, seeking to narrate the history of Gujarat and Ahmedabad right up to the present day. 
Written in highly readable style, the books essentially reflect his deep understanding of life and culture of a state which was known for its composite culture, and how it turned into a society divided by religion, and the type of development model adopted by the authorities.
While he wouldn’t say so openly, circles around him would narrate to me how he was sought to be sidelined by a section of activists in Gujarat. I don’t know if this section was jealous of his wide outreach to top intellectuals across India, but this fact became particularly glaring when the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Gujarat, published a book “Four Decades of Human Rights in Gujarat and Civil Liberties Movement (1974-2014)".
I published a story on this in Counterview, stating, the book does not even mention Achyutbhai’s name despite the fact that he headed the “PUCL’s Gujarat chapter in its initial years of 1980s, and was one of the foremost campaigners against the dominant caste-sponsored violent anti-reservation agitation.” When contacted, Achyutbhai smilingly told me what he was and what he did, but added, “This reflects the mindset of some of those head PUCL.”
The last time I (along with Shruti, my wife) met Achyutbhai was a month before his death at his residence on his return from hospital after being treated for heart. Though not feeling well, he walked up to me from his bedroom. I found him as lively as before, smiling and unassuming, asking me about my children, whom he knew so well, and also briefing me about his health. We talked a little bit of politics, too.
Before ending my courtesy call, I asked him, why doesn’t he consider writing an autobiography. He could do it by recording on a mobile app, and ask someone to transcribe it. He smiled away my suggestion. I knew why: he never kept a mobile set with him, though was always available on phone. Not present on social media, he would read Counterview regularly on computer -- a great compliment for me!

Comments

Jagdish Patel said…
Wonderful tribute. Though I never have had any opportunity, to meet him personally but I attended some meetings in Delhi in which he, too was attending. He was widely respected in Delhi but as you have rightly said, a section of activists in Gujarat has sidelined him. Everyone has their own time and ups and downs in life. His contribution to Gujart will be remembered for along time to come.

Jagdish Patel
In-depth journalism and scholarship so rare nowadays. Very refreshing read. Amitav Banerjee, 27 Aug 2023

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