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Young men at the barricades

March 03, 2004

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 diedI 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. Nave, 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.

The basic premise of the anti-Mandal Commission agitation was simple. Why should an essentially divisive element and a carry over of the traditional society be a factor in determining something as modern as jobs? Why should people be divided on the basis of surnames? And why, oh why, should merit be not the first, foremost and the only factor in determining who stood face in job race?

An agitation aiming to attract attention without violence and inconvenience to daily commuters requires out of the box thinking. No one knows who thought of it first, but a slogan had the usually ham-handed Delhi Police pussyfooting when it came to beating us down. "Andar ke baat hai, Delhi police hamare saath hai," we would shout, and the normally reticent and the burly cops would break out into a smile. For almost a month the cops refused to baton charge us, often going against the orders of their superiors.

Another method we hit upon was that of redesignating key crossings in Delhi as Kranti Chowks (Revolution Squares). Some students camped there indefinitely, while others would converge at certain times of the day to let people know why we were so worked up. Two of them, one at DU and another at AIIMS Safdarjung, were set up where we would stop motorists for 15 minutes every hour or so explaining our position patiently. Many, instead of getting angry, would actually offer us to drop us back to our colleges.

One among many given the task of organising South Campus colleges, my first brush with Rajiv Goswami was at one of the 'awareness' meetings at Deshbandhu College. A natural leader Goswami did not hide his political aspirations. He wanted to contest the college presidential elections, and he told me as much that he saw his involvement in the agitation as a stepping-stone to university politics. But personal gains aside, he had fire in the belly and a sense of being wronged. He, like many, could not understand for the good lord why merit was not the first, and the only, criteria for jobs.

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.

With the cops refusing to use force, popular support in our favour and Devi Lal breathing down V P Singh's neck, the Raja of Manda was desperate to break the back of the agitation.

And he did it in one stroke by dangling the carrot of reservations to the Jats. Devi Lal was partly mollified and backed off. The Jats who had joined the agitation saw no reason to carry on. The effect was most apparent in the Jat-dominated Delhi Police. The velvet glove was off and brutal force was used to break up processions and the Kranti Chowks were under siege.

The support from the Jat-dominated colleges like Motilal Nehru college, Ramlal Anand college and ARSD college vanished overnight. The unity of purpose evaporated, and the cause started withering.

It was at this time Rajiv Goswami called for a meeting at his college, the Deshbandhu. Thousands gathered that day, but no one imagined what was about to happen. When I saw flames leaping out some 15 metres ahead of me, my first thought was that the burning effigy should not lead to violence. Several screams later, it hit me. It wasn't an effigy. It was a flesh and blood human being. It was Rajiv Goswami.

From that moment on all hell broke loose. Unbridled violence dismantled the carefully constructed movement moulded on ideals and built on popular support. For every violent act of ours, the government replied in the same coin. It wasn't long before one victor stood.

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.

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