“I have been writing my CV,” says H S Doreswamy, peering closely at a bunch of papers he has been scribbling on. In the dim light of his ground-floor residence in south Bengaluru, the 102-year-old reads out a summary of his life, from his birth in the city in 1918 to a family of landed gentry to his participation in the Quit India movement and Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement, and, most recently, a campaign to revive lakes in Bengaluru. “You can read it and tell me if there is anything anti-national in it,” he says.
A familiar figure in civil society movements in Karnataka for decades, Doreswamy finds himself at the centre of a political storm. It began when the BJP MLA from Bijapur, Basangouda Patil Yatnal, called him a “fake freedom fighter” and a “Pakistani agent” last month, seeking proof of his involvement in the Independence movement. Several senior BJP leaders, including Union minister Pralhad Joshi, backed Yatnal.
Last Tuesday, in response, the Congress produced a document, dated 1971, signed by the senior superintendent of the Bengaluru Central Jail, attesting that, as a 25-year-old unmarried man, Doreswamy had been imprisoned there from “December 18, 1942 (and) released on December 8, 1943”.
Of the many allegations made against Doreswamy by BJP leaders is his “connection” with Amulya Leona Noronha, the 19-year-old held on February 20 for “sedition” over slogans she had raised at an anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act rally, on the basis of a photograph which shows him at her residence in Koppa.
“He is the conscience of our state,” says historian Ramachandra Guha, calling the campaign against Doreswamy “shocking and scandalous”. “A man of great decency and honesty, he has been a part of several social and ecological movements, has spoken up for farmers and the landless. He has criticised Congress governments for their shady land deals… But what shocks me the most is the silence of Chief Minister B S Yeddiyurappa, who knows what kind of a person he is, who took oath in the name of farmers,” says Guha.
Doreswamy says he is as surprised. “I have been in public life for 60 years. We have differences in ideology but I have friends in the BJP and RSS too. I never expected that the BJP as a whole would attack me like this.”
Admitting he has been critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the centenarian adds, “I have criticised every government. That is a citizen’s privilege. During the Emergency, I wrote a letter to then PM Indira Gandhi, saying, ‘You are ruling in the name of democracy, but behaving like a dictator… If this continues, I will go house to house telling people you are a dictator’.” Doreswamy was imprisoned for four months consequently and released when a magistrate dismissed the case, saying “he has every right to criticise his prime minister”.
A teacher of physics and maths at a school in Bengaluru, Doreswamy joined the freedom struggle in June 1942, on Mahatma Gandhi’s call. “We would place small ‘time bombs’ in post boxes near government offices. They were not meant to kill people. They would burn documents, disrupting government communication. Sometimes, we would tie bombs to tails of rats and throw these into record rooms,” he recalls.
Barely six months in, Doreswamy was arrested for arson. When he was released in 1943, he plunged into the Independence movement.
In decades since, Doreswamy has taken up several causes, from the protests against the Kaiga nuclear plant in north Karnataka to rights of landless farmers. “To call a Gandhian figure like him ‘Pakistani agent’ or accuse him of inciting violence is laughable,” says anti-corruption activist S R Hiremath.
In 2014, Doreswamy and slain journalist Gauri Lankesh were part of a civil society platform that helped Naxalites who had given up arms return to the mainstream. “We want Naxals to join a democratic system. But these peoples call me a Naxal!” he says.
About Amulya, whose father stood surety for two former Naxals, Doreswamy says, “Five or seven years ago, I had gone to Koppa, where about 500 homes of tribals were about to be demolished. I don’t remember but my friends say the family had called us for supper. She was in Class 5-6, a child. Or is it that she was a born Naxal?”
Remembering how the RSS used to be a “weak force”, with “no freedom fighters among them”, Doreswamy believes the failure of successive governments facilitated the BJP’s rise. “Gandhi wanted poverty reduced on a priority basis. But other than that, politicians have done everything, gone to the moon, squandered money, melted hills and hillocks.”
Accusing the RSS of targeting the young, the 102-year-old, who moved close to his daughter’s house three months ago after his wife’s death, says, “They invite them to shakhas to play, and then poison their minds with anti-Muslim hate.”
On March 3, in an open letter to a minister in the Yeddiyurappa cabinet, writer and intellectual Devanoor Mahadeva lamented what the campaign against Doreswamy reflected. “Without the courage to look at the problems his words point to… instead of being in wonder that a man from another era lives among us, a man who has lived by non-violence for more than a hundred years, only makes us Lilliputian.”
Doreswamy insists he is not worried. “My friends say it is because they want to curb my voice. But rules and regulations are there, the Constitution is there to defend us. People are there. They know me through and through. My life is like a mirror. Definitely, people will stand behind me… The poor deserve food, employment, literacy. That is why I am still fighting.”