H. S. DORESWAMY – A TRIBUTE By Leo Saldhana
Who would have thought that in 2021, an American corporation known to harvest private communications for corporate profit would stand up against the Indian Government, defending the Right of Privacy of Indians. Ironically, here we are in the middle of the pandemic, worrying about how police can zoom in to suspend our fundamental right of expression, or walk into our homes and take away all that is ours, when the administration should, in fact, be ensuring that not one more person suffers, or dies, of COVID.
We are living through most bizarre times. Holding on to the idea of a secure self is being constantly challenged by a nervous State that is threatening our assumptions of citizenship and sparing no effort to make us feel like we are no more than a mere number. While it trashes every plan we make for our economic and social security, giving nothing at all for us to hold on to, history tell us that there are amongst us folks who have lived through this before.
Eight decades ago, a young man chose to challenge such a State, led by the British Empire. Through his crude bombs he tried to destroy their documents, with his writings he tore into their hegemony and hypocrisy, he published newspapers as an act of defiance and organised resistance as though his life’s very breath depended on it. The bombs got him arrested even as the nation was mobilised by Mahatma Gandhi towards political freedom with the Quit India Movement. Jail time strengthened this young man’s resolve: to always hold the State to account. He moulded himself into that kind of a citizen who should become an inspiration and model for generations to come.
st Wednesday, that young man passed on, at the age of 103 – super ripe old age for ordinary mortals.
Till his last step, his last breath, H. S. Doreswamy was active in exploring the contours of freedom and liberty. Such a tall man (and literally too) has never walked amongst us. He was an enigmatic presence, entirely accessible and endearing to just about anyone. Independence was not merely a political act for Doreswamy, it was a deeply personal choice. Without the latter the former cannot be achieved, he would say.
Autonomy was his praxis and was actively demonstrated in his dependence on public transport, even well into his 90s. So unassuming and beautifully simple was the nature of this gentle giant – in his dhoti, shawl loosely thrown over his shoulders, the ever present smile, charmingly sharp eyes and his confident, composed and determined gait.
A freedom fighter against the British remained a fighter for fundamental freedoms all his life. Five years before the Right to Information Act, 2005 was enacted, the S M Krishna-led Government of Karnataka pushed ahead with the disastrous and most unnecessary Bengaluru Mysore Infrastructure Corridor Project. The project would have destroyed at least 180 villages, large swathes of forests and irrigated farm land between the two districts. Doreswamy was there in every protest against that project. He also led a Public Interest Litigation challenging the in-transparency that was foundational to the promotion of this project.
In an Environmental Public Hearing held in crowded Yavanika on July 5, 2000, to ritually accord environmental clearance, Doreswamy stood up in protest before then District Commissioner Sanaulla and a panel comprising retired Environment Secretary A N Yellappa Reddy, and appealed to their conscience to not rubber stamp this project.
His appeals fell on deaf ears, and he was arrested from within the statutory hearing along with several of us who had joined his protest. As we spent the day in a police station, Doreswamy regaled everyone with his light hearted humour and peppered them with stories from his life lived with such passion for freedom.
So often has he stood in the way of a reckless and inhumane State that it is difficult to count how many times he has been arrested. It is a fact that no State Government gave him the respect that they gave his mortal remains – a state funeral in the midst of a pandemic. Doreswamy would have disapproved of it, especially given his active resistance to the ideas of governance of the party in power, especially their communal and majoritarian politics that he staunchly opposed and exposed.
Like L C Jain, Doreswamy held that a citizen should not bow to the State. Jain had argued that the Right to Information movement subordinated the citizen to a mere applicant of information that was naturally hers.
Doreswamy’s agreement with this position was in his actions. He determinedly held the view that a weak citizenry would create a rogue state. Which is why he took such an active role in India Against Corruption campaign. But when the campaign dissembled into a petty political mishmash, Doreswamy walked forward to stand with progressive movements.
His unflinching support for syncreticism jostled with his die hard belief in the equality of all, literally standing with struggles of the most vulnerable. Never an arm chair activist, Doreswamy was out there in the sun, rain or sandstorm, with grit and determination writ large on his face, to fight injustices.
He took up causes not because he had the means or the resources to mobilise. He didn’t look over his shoulder to see if there were others. He simply got up and walked into a struggle.
Just as he stood against the Citizenship Amendment Act, he also stood with those who fought encroachment of lakes and commons, or against those who humiliated Dalits and Adivasis. In all of this, his manner was polite, but firm. He was aware that revolutions don’t happen in a day or a matter of years, and that it needs persistence. And he persisted. Against an increasingly diabolical and demoniacal State, he remained rock solid. The same man would melt into joyful silliness in the company of a child.
That he touched so many so deeply is evident in the distinctively personal sharing that is going on in social media – every one has a story of him; everyone has a picture with him; everyone believes that s/he has had the most special experience with him.
A Free Man such as Doreswamy is rare! Walk on free, Doreswamy avare.