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Young men at the barricades
R Swaminathan | March 03, 2004 12:27 IST
He was not my friend. We didn't boisterously backslap each when we met. Or share locker room jokes gleefully. Nor did we exchange notes about wives and kids.
But when a colleague shouted out across that Rajiv Goswami had died I became numb. The man who turned himself into a flaming torch for a cause was no more. He was just 33.
Last year I had met him for a short while. Pleasantries apart, we were comfortably silent. A silence that was born out of a recognition of once being involved in a cause. A cause that had withered away as the fire of violence was stoked and politicians cooked their goose.
1990 was the year when many, including me, were callow boy-men. Naïve, idealistic urban-bred 'individuals' on the verge of figuring out how our world operated. But none had an inkling of the bruising encounter one would have with the permanent resident of Indian society -- caste. And that encounter changed our lives permanently.
To feel the sting of a police baton at the age of 18, to have friends turn foes just because they discovered their surnames, to see your mother's disapproval turn to fear as you left your house everyday is not the life of a 'normal, middle class' youth.
It all began, and ended, in the Byzantine maze of intrigue and skulduggery of the Delhi durbar. And as is generally the case -- in war, politics or corporate restructuring -- the foot soldiers were the cannon fodder.
When Haryana strongman Chaudhary Devi Lal, also the deputy prime minister at that time, had flexed his muscles along with a crowd of over 500,000 at Red Fort in Delhi a certain Vishwanath Pratap Singh got jittery. He had ascended the throne of the prime minister quelling challenges by many, among them Lal.
Conventional wisdom suggests that V P Singh realised the only way to checkmate Devi Lal within the loose conglomeration that he headed was to unleash the caste card. And that he did, extremely well in foresight, by dusting the mothballed Mandal Commission report.
Singh's 'altruistic motives' of social justice apart, for many the report meant an end of a dream. Nowhere was the shattered dream more evident than in the corridors of the Jubilee Hall hostel in Delhi University's North Campus. Dominated by students from Bihar, most had migrated to the capital having lived, slept and breathed civil services. Suddenly, overnight, their chances had been halved by an executive diktat. (For the uninitiated Delhi University is divided into North Campus, where the older colleges are located, and South Campus, populated by newer ones)
Brilliant minds, young, eager and keen to make a mark in the world, if pushed to a corner by apparent injustice can only spark off one thing -- rebellion. And that was exactly what was plotted in the mess rooms of the hostel.
By a certain quirk of fate, I was privy to the many discussions on how the agitation was to be moulded. After several brainstorming sessions we were clear about three things -- no violence, no inconvenience to ordinary folks and novel methods of protest.
Unlike the North Campus, the South Campus is not a single cluster. While Sri Venkateswara, Atma Ram Sanatam Dharam, Motilal Nehru, Ramlal Anand, Jesus and Mary and Maitreyi colleges comprised one cluster, Deshbandhu, Bhagat Singh and College of Vocational Studies comprised another. In addition there were one-off colleges, like Dyal Singh, which were located in other parts of the city.
For an agitation, logistically, South Campus provided a greater challenge than the North simply due to its scattered nature. As a natural leader, Rajiv Goswami quickly took on the mantle of a magnet for the Deshbandhu cluster, while we got busy with the Venkateswara cluster.
Thirteen years have passed since those tumultuous months. Some wounds have healed, others deliberately stashed away in a corner and some still fester. But even today the question that haunted me then still echoes in my head. And yet unanswered.