Guest post by SHANKAR GOPALAKRISHNAN and TREPAN SINGH CHAUHAN
On April 11th, a memorial meeting was held at Gandhi Park, Dehradun. You probably haven’t heard of Sadhuram, the person for whom it was held. Thousands of people have indeed heard of him. But it reflects the divided world we live in – the world that Sadhuram fought to change – that it’s very unlikely that you are one of them.
Sadhuram was a Dalit, a mason and a resident of Jakhan, Dehradun. He was also the vice president of the Uttarakhand Nav Nirman Mazdoor Sangh, a union of unorganised sector workers. To the daily wage workers of Jakhan, he was a daily presence at the mazdoor chowk, the place where people stand for work in the morning; some of them affectionately referred to him as “mantri-ji.” Late on the night of March 26th, Sadhuram committed suicide.
Why did he do it? That question has many partial answers. On December 5th, 2014, his wife Geeta Devi died of kidney failure. Geeta was not one to give up easily; her death came after a long battle against a painful disease and the extortions of private doctors. That very night, Sadhuram’s younger son, Ravi, lay down on the tracks outside Dehradun station and committed suicide. Sadhuram was left an angry, saddened man, having lost the two most important people in his life. His remaining son cared little for either the union or Sadhuram. They had frequent fights, and his son often beat him. Nor was that the only atrocity in Sadhuram’s life. After Ravi’s death, he was entitled to Rs. 50,000 in compensation under the Building Workers’ Act; that 50,000 might have meant the difference between continuing abuse and independence. But for an entire year the Labour Department sat on the application, notwithstanding at least twenty meetings and even a personal direction from the CM.
Then in January 2016 they discovered that Ravi’s form listed Geeta, not Saduram, as nominee; and this “technical problem” resulted in another merry go round of letters. Today, sixteen months after his application, Sadhuram is dead, his legal entitlements still undelivered. Supporters of bureaucrat-centred “welfare” and cash transfer schemes, of which the Modi government is so fond, might want to take note.
Customarily, at this point in the obituary of a social activist, one cites some stirring quote, some moving speech that summarised his or her ideas. But no one ever managed to persuade Sadhuram to give a speech longer than “Hamari party mazboot hona chahiye.” He was not one of the union’s inspiring leaders or articulate orators. In his own slum he was the titular head of a team whose other members did most of the actual organising. He was heading towards becoming an alcoholic, and he had an acerbic tongue. The saintly halo we like to stick on our heroes does not fit so easily on Sadhuram.
But he was a hero nonetheless. Because Sadhuram understood something that many people do not. He understood that at the end what matters is not words or ideas or leadership, but the simple courage required to be there for what one believes – through victories, defeats, and the long stretches where nothing seems to happen at all. When the union had precisely twenty active members, Sadhuram was one of them. When the police attacked Jakhan chowk in August and December 2013, Sadhuram was among the first to reach, braving the threat of blows. When a team was formed to stand at the chowk to stop the police eviction, he was there. For months afterwards he continued to reach the chowk every morning, persuading workers to not even set one foot on the road, to avoid giving the police a pretext for claiming that they were obstructing traffic. Today, when the union has several thousand members, he was still at the forefront of every meeting, in every rally, in every delegation. He continued to care for a world that no longer seemed to care about him. So many people buy into the myths – myths whose sophistication varies by class – about why they can do nothing, why it does not matter if they do anything, why everyone is corrupt and useless anyway. Sadhuram skipped over all that and fought. He believed in himself, he believed in his rights, and he believed in the struggle.
Up to the very end. The evening before he died, Sadhuram joined the union’s central committee meeting, held in the same Gandhi Park. In the middle of a heated debate about our March 11th rally, he stood up and pulled out a small bottle. He declared that he had had enough and was leaving the world. Several of us chased after him, calmed him down and tried to convince him that there was no reason to give up. People who met him later that evening said he seemed much cheered. He proudly told one of the others about a victory we had just won – 2000 workers had received their registration cards – and about how many more people would believe in the union as a result. We don’t know what happened in his house later that night. Rumours speak of another fight with his son. We do know that the next morning, when one of us – Trepan – rushed to Indresh hospital on hearing the news, he found Sadhuram’s body lying alone in the mortuary. No one from his family could be found.
Much could be written about how Sadhuram’s pain finally overcame him. Much could be said, and should be said, about a callous, corrupt and apathetic Labour Department. Much could be said about a state machinery that cannot provide even the most basic healthcare to its citizens. Much could be said about the shattering of the most basic bonds of empathy between people, the loneliness and exhaustion that so many see as their only future; about the inhuman existence that our society daily inflicts on the majority of its members – and particularly on Dalit workers like Saduram.
But those points are for other times. For now, in grief, we can only say that these seem to us to all be facets of one fundamental truth. Radicals and revolutionaries of every generation have said it, but it bears repeating. The capitalist world we live in is unjust not only because it creates inequality, not only because it denies basic rights; these are all means to an end. That end is the reduction of the beauty and wonder of human life to the state of cogs in a machine; the relentless, never ending effort to wear down the human spirit. To exhaust people, to convince them that they are helpless, to prove to them that their only worth is as a means to the end of other people’s gains. Sadhuram knew that. He knew the struggle was not for one or the other entitlement; it was for the dignity of workers, for human beings to be able to live as human beings. That was why he was there, day in and day out. If you had asked him to sum up what he was fighting for, he couldn’t have done it. He lived it instead. And he lived, too, to see the first small victories that emerged from the struggle he was so central to building.
But they were not enough to save his life. In the end that spirit was defeated. We who knew him have lost a man whom we had come to trust, come to like, come, at a deep level, to believe in. The rest of the world has lost one more person who sought to build a better future. It is people like Sadhuram who make justice and freedom possible. His death diminishes us all.
The authors are activists of Chetna Andolan and the Uttarakhand Nav Nirman Mazdoor Sangh