Book Review: Portrait of a Student Activist by Pushpesh Pant. Smriti Books, New Delhi. 2011*
Background and book release ceremony
A new book* on the General Secretary of India's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Prof. Devi Prasad Tripathi or DPT as he is widely known, casts light on the unique aspects of Indian democracy, particularly the vibrancy of India's student politics, elections fought with as much vigor as parliamentary election. DPT often appears on Indian TV channels for the NCP that is a vocal component of the ruling alliance. Most of those in the Indian Cabinet or other national figures, irrespective of party, come from a background in electoral student politics. DPT is no exception, having been President of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union (JNUSU) in the tumultuous period leading up the roughly two year period from 1975 to 1977 when democracy was abrogated and individuals like DPT were "kidnapped" and housed in Delhi's Tihar Jail. That period of hardship ironically became a badge of honor later and appears to have helped to propel, over the next decades, those political prisoners, many who then were or had been student union leaders, into the highest echelons of policy- and decision-making today.
Even a discussion on the draft book hosted by friends of DPT at New Delhi's India International Centre attracted the spectrum of India's democracy -- from India's Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar who is also President of the NCP, Delhi's Chief Minister Sheila Dixit of the Congress Party, the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party's General Secretary Arun Jaitley, who was the President of the Delhi University Students' Union and is also a prominent Supreme Court lawyer, Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi who is General Secretary of the Trinamool Congress, to the CPI (M) General Secretary, Prakash Karat, who was the President of the JNUSU in the 1970s. In his speech, Mr. Karat emphasized how student unions fostered the ability of students to organize even at a young age, to advocate for specific change, to take responsibility and to work on achieving consensus. But in recent years, violent clashes between organized student groups in some parts of the country have done damage and have led courts to call a halt to elections. Therefore, it is probably when outside groups use students for shadow boxing that those calamities occur and blanket bans of student union elections are imposed.
Written in an uplifting/humorous style by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Professor Pushpesh Pant, the book traverses DPT's life with allusions to the backdrop of India's progress over the decades. Born with congenital corneal opacity into a household in India's most populous State of Uttar Pradesh with his father making a living from a tea shack in faraway Calcutta, DPT overcame many heavy odds. Stigmatized for his disability as a child, DPT was even shooed away from weddings while other children were welcomed -- obviously traumatic for the small child. DPT's growth is traced from those humble beginnings to his admission to New Delhi's JNU, to excelling there, to his charismatic leadership of the students' union, and beyond. Also, the book goes into great detail into what makes JNU special, why many of those who become JNU students excel in academia, the bureaucracy, technocracy, entrepreneurship, the media and indeed in the political world. For instance, the current Cabinet Secretary, the highest position in the national bureaucracy, is a JNU alumnus.
But the most scintillating part of the book is on the declaration of "Emergency" in 1975, now seen as a profound aberration in India's democracy, and the resulting hunt for DPT by the police. An amusing anecdote is presented in the book of how Maneka Gandhi, the wife of Sanjay Gandhi, the son of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and enfant terrible of the Emergency, was blocked from entering her JNU class by DPT and some other students with the comment, "You are one of us, Mrs. Gandhi Junior." That made Maneka Gandhi furious and she reportedly yelled at the students, "Just you wait and see. Your heads will roll soon." Amusingly, Maneka Gandhi is now a BJP (opposition) MP while DPT's NCP is a coalition partner of the ruling Indian National Congress that was once responsible for declaring the Emergency. Later, DPT even worked as an advisor to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who succeeded Mrs. Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister.
It reflects well on the maturity of India's democracy that such political opponents could and continue to find common ground and work together. Privately, many express regret and remorse at the suppression of fundamental rights during the Emergency. Furthermore, there are no permanent friends and enemies in India's politics, only somewhat temporary alliances based on mutual interest. A poignant example is presented in the book of DPT accompanying Jaya Prakash Narayan (JP), who led the nationwide protests against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1977. When the recently defeated Mrs. Indira Gandhi and JP met, rather than rancor or bitterness at having spent almost two years behind bars and having his health seriously damaged, JP returned to Mrs. Gandhi letters that she had written to JP's wife Prabhavati, since JP did not want those letters to cause embarrassment to Mrs. Gandhi if they fell into the wrong hands. JP even attempted to console Mrs. Gandhi -- seeing her no longer as a political adversary but rather as the daughter of his old friend Jawaharlal Nehru. Thus, even as a youngster, DPT witnessed that way of functioning at the highest echelons of Indian democracy, and it was possible only because of his then recent stint in jail with those leaders that in turn had been a consequence of his student activism at JNU. Those experiences of the essence of Indian democracy imbibed indelible lessons for the future in DPT.
Overall, the book is really special in elucidating the central position that students' unions have played in preparing leaders like DPT for tomorrow. Surely, DPT deserves a place in the Indian Parliament, and one can hope that his efforts over the decades will also bear fruit in this respect. His strong voice, sometimes earthy and sometimes erudite, will be effective in and will illuminate informed parliamentary debate and oversight.