Writer and economist Vithal Rajan tells us the story of a life that spanned countries and causes
The change makers of the world work in different ways, some of them lend their lives, voices and faces to a cause, some work towards solving all the problems faced by a particular community and some others let their conscience guide them, from cause to cause, community to community, wherever they feel their skills and empathy are most required. Writer Vithal Rajan is of this last category.
In 1970, at the height of the Vietnam war, Rajan left a lucrative job with ICI chemicals in Canada to join the peace movement, as a part of which, in 1972, he was sent to Belfast as a mediator on behalf of World Council of Churches & Pontifical Commission for Justice & Peace. Then when Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975, Rajan felt a responsibility to return to India, while many others were looking to leave. When Old City was put under 24 hour curfew in the Nineties, he was among those that delivered bags of grain to those stranded without jobs or food.
He has been a member of several civil society groups, including Deccan Development Society and Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA) which he co- founded. Today, having retired from many of these, Rajan spends his time writing fiction and has a few books under his belt.
As we sit in Rajan’s comfortable study surrounded by his extensive library of books, less than 72 hours since Arvind Kejriwal stepped down as the Chief Minister of Delhi after he failed to get the Jan Lokpal Bill passed in the state assembly and Andhra Pradesh is waiting with bated breath for the final verdict on Telangana in the Lok Sabha (which was passed later that evening). It seems like a good day to speak to someone who has spent his life fighting and speaking against issues like economic disparity, civil unrest, marginalisation and corruption.
The conversation begins on a rather ironic note when Rajan revealed that he first left India for Canada in 1965 to get away from the country’s male chauvinistic, feudal attitude and the caste system, among other things. “I was so disgusted with all these things that I said to myself, ‘Let me go out into the modern world rather than be stuck here,’ but I got there and found out the modern world was quite happily bombing Vietnamese peasants,” he says. “It was an awful experience to go back home every day and watch poor people being killed and so I joined the peace movement.”
Rajan was not the only one. “It was a huge movement which included the student movement, the flower-power hippie movement, Paris 68 - it was a great reaction to the way the world was being run at that point,” recalls the septuagenarian who decided the best thing for him to do at that point was to take the academic route. He procured a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to do a PhD in the London School of Economics (LSE), an institution that, he was disappointed to find, had left its left wing days behind by the time he joined.
While this shift may seem drastic, Rajan reveals its seeds were sown many years earlier, in Madhya Pradesh where he grew up. “My father was an Indian Civil Service officer and a socialist and when the Congress party came into power, he would tell me about the level of corruption that was unleashed so maybe that is why I went left of centre,” says Rajan.
As the civil rights movement erupted in Northern Ireland, Rajan was sent to Belfast to act as mediator on behalf of the World Council of Churches. “I was more than willing to go because the connection between India and Ireland is very old - they were both colonies of the British so had the same grievances about imperialism. The people were warm, friendly; I don’t think I’ve ever had to pay for my own drink in a pub there!” says Rajan. “But they can get very mad when they are fighting; I have seen a person get shot in front of my own eyes.”
However, in Rajan’s own words, the practical life of a mediator is not more than three years, “After three years I saw that my value ceased to exist because by then you get to know people on both sides very well and they both say ‘How can you sit on the fence when you know what we are going through?’, but that is a mediator’s job. So I felt it was time for me to move on.”
It was around the same time that Prime Minister Harold Wilson, also the Chancellor of Bradford University wanted to establish a school of peace studies, the first school focussing solely on interdisciplinary approach to issues of violence and peace. Rajan was asked to be one of the founding faculty members of the institution, an offer he accepted gladly. “Ted Edwards, a former member of the British Communist Party was vice chancellor, so it was left wing and laid back,” describes Rajan. While in Bradford, Rajan also travelled through China during the Cultural Revolution with a few other economists and planners, including Meghnad Desai. But he did not hold this post for very long as back home in India, trouble was brewing and Rajan had another crisis of conscience.
“I had no intention of coming back to India but it is very hard to live happily with yourself knowing that things are not okay with people you know,” explains Rajan on why he felt he should come back to India during the Emergency. “In a way, I can quite sympathise with terrorists. A lot of people wonder why highly educated people turn terrorists but there is a voice of conscience when your people are going through a bad time and you are having a good time. I am not saying I would ever agree with the idea of terrorism because this voice could be mistaken, but I know where they are coming from. So I thought I must come back to India, but where do I go?”
How he landed up in Hyderabad can be traced back to a meeting with Potla Sen, brother of Mohit Sen and Principal of Administrative Staff College, over tea. “Within ten minutes he said ‘Vittal, I know exactly how you feel, I will give you a place at the staff college and you make your way from there.’ By the time Rajan came back and joined the staff college, “Mrs. Gandhi had a call of conscience, like me.”
Although the Emergency was called off, Rajan continued to stay in India, leaving only intermittently, once in 1984 to Sweden as Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Awards, now known as the alternative Nobel and later in 1990 to join the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as the Director of Ethics and Information.
Rajan describes his job at the WWF as a “fake job” which made him “very angry”. “I hated it; I joined them under the condition that we will consider tribal and indigenous people as the first guardians of the environment but they had a very elitist view of things. They paid me well and I had a lot of perks but my job was basically to be this brown man who could talk English, wear a dinner jacket, stand with Prince Philip and be nice while the audience of multimillionaires wrote cheques,” he says, “I was already in my Fifties and that was no way I wanted to end my life.”
The Right Livelihood Foundation was a very good organisation, according to Rajan. “That was also where I met Bill Mollison who established the Permaculture movement.” says Rajan who is still the founder trustee of Agriculture. Man. Ecology (AME). “ I think the ideas of permaculture are going to become very important, especially once we get Telangana. We don’t need million dollar irrigation projects when there are other ways to increase productivity of dry lands,” says Rajan who believes that the biggest crisis in India is the government’s neglect of agriculture. “Have you heard any PM saying that they will take up agriculture? No. They go for all the ‘sexy’ portfolios like finance and defence.”
While in Hyderabad, Rajan who had so far been an academic decided to try something “practical” and along with a group of friends and colleagues, including V. R. Reddy, K.S. Gopal, P.V. Sateesh, Raghu Kedambi, M. V. Shastri and Ranji Reddy formed the Deccan Development Society, an organisation dedicated to working with rural communities. When violence broke out in Hyderabad in the Nineties and Old City was put under a 24-hours curfew, Rajan and his contemporaries got together and in pitch darkness took bags of grains to the people there. “There were many daily wage earners in Old City and their families were starving with no money to buy food, people were dying simply because they couldn’t be taken to hospital,” recalls Rajan. Following this, Rajan also set up the Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA) along with Mazar Hussain and others.
Around this time, Rajan was also approached by a young Vikram Akula who wanted to start a microfinance company in India. SKS Microfinance was started as an NGO with Rajan as the founding chair. “Soon, he turned it into a business but that was his call, so I resigned my position,” explains Rajan.
Rajan has since retired from most of these organisations but continues to engage with the issues in whichever way he can. Ten years ago, he decided to start writing fiction and his first book, Holmes of the Raj was a humorous take on Sherlock Holmes in India. Even in his stories, Rajan makes sure to steer things to the left and put a subaltern spin on his characters. “Many people asked, ‘how could you make Holmes to be a racist?’ but the point is, if Holmes would have come to India then, he would inevitably had acted like that.” His latest book. Sharmaji Padmashree is a take on “middle class attitudes and involves NGOs, bureaucrats, feminists and the government.”