By: Yogendra Yadav
Sunil Gupta convinced you that politics and idealism can go together.
Sunilji is no more. His sudden departure was unlikely to make headlines, even if it was not in the middle of election frenzy. He was not a celebrity (and was happy not to be one), but he was clearly one of the few leaders worth celebrating in our public life. If you met him even fleetingly, Sunilji, or Sunil bhai as he came to be called, could convince you that idealism and politics could go together. He inspired scores of young Indians to take to public life. I was one of them.
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He was a few years senior to me at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he came after having studied in Hindi-medium at Rampur, a small town in Madhya Pradesh. Tales of his brilliance and “A plus” grades still do the rounds at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (the name for the economics department at JNU). Satish Jain, his teacher, told me yesterday that as a first-semester student, Sunil had spotted a serious logical flaw in a textbook written by a professor from Princeton. He encouraged Sunil to write to the author, who admitted his error. Sunilji, of course, never mentioned this to anyone.
By the time I met him in 1981, Sunilji was something of a living legend in JNU. He was the campus’s local Gandhi. In a place where fierce political battles were fought within the socialist-communist-left fraternity, communism and socialism were not just two ideologies, but two ways of life. Sunilji represented the non-Marxist socialist stream. I found myself following his cult: it meant following Lohia and not Marx, we wore kurta-pyajama and not the famous kurta-jeans, we took pride in Hindi rather than English and we took to nimbu paani rather than drinking and smoking.
No one was surprised when Sunilji decided to leave his doctoral studies and a possible lucrative career in economics in favour of the hard life of a political activist. He shifted to an Adivasi area in Kesala block in the Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh. No one thought he would survive more than a few months. But his partner Smitadi and he lived among the Adivasis, with them and like them, for the last 30 years. In Kesala, Sunilji worked towards building the Kisan Adivasi Sangathan, an organisation that developed Adivasi leadership through a series of struggles. He was instrumental in setting up a fishworker’s cooperative of Adivasis displaced by the Tawa dam. This was a model to be emulated, as its performance beat both that of the government and the private contractors.
At JNU, he had already met socialist thinkers and leaders like Kishen Pattanayak and Sachchidanand Sinha. They were among the founders of the Samata Sangathan, a non-party political organisation that decided not to contest elections for 10 years. In 1995, this experiment gave way to the formation of a political party, Samajwadi Jan Parishad, that brought together many people’s movements. I was his junior and truant colleague in all these efforts at building an alternative politics. Sunilji was a pillar of strength for this party. As the natural intellectual and political heir of Pattanayak, he guided the party after the latter’s death in 2004. We parted ways in 2012, when some of us joined the Aam Aadmi Party at its inception. Sunilji remained firm in his belief that only an ideologically undiluted socialist party could meet the challenge of our times.
His activism never drowned his intellect. Sunilji was a prolific writer and his articles appeared in myriad Hindi newspapers and in the niche magazine of social movements, Samayik Varta, of which he was the editor. His incisive analysis and insights were eagerly looked forward to and discussed in the social movements sector, often informing and always influential in the parameters of debate. Occasionally he wrote in English too. Articles like “Socialism of the New Century” (Kafila, August 29, 2010) reflect the range and depth of his reflection on the politics of our times. He remained an uncompromising critic of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation, believing firmly in the possibility of building an alternative model of development. Of late, he had been a passionate advocate of the Common School System in education.
Sunilji was not the best known among the activists of his generation but he was arguably the tallest. He belonged to the rare species in politics that combines personal integrity, selflessness, team-building ability and a powerful intellect. He made it seem natural that these qualities should come together. Getting to know him was one of the most significant influences on my life. Even in his absence, he made you think about what he would have done or said. That is something I will carry for the rest of my life.
The writer is a leader of the Aam Aadmi Party