H.S. Doreswamy (1918-2021)

I think it is time I launch my campaign: H.S. Doreswamy

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

A frail old man, a few weeks shy of 102, is keenly watching the proceedings of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly on television, reclining on a cot in his modest house in South Bengaluru. H.S. Doreswamy — freedom fighter, Gandhian and civic activist — is more absorbed than usual in the cacophonous news telecast because it is him that the Assembly is discussing.

The Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka has launched a virulent attack on the centenarian, starting with a former Union minister calling him a “fake freedom fighter” who behaves like a “Pakistani agent”. Several BJP leaders have joined in, alleging that the freedom fighter was partisan because he had done the unthinkable — criticised Hindutva icon V.D. Savarkar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Despite a pushback by the Opposition for three days in the Assembly, the BJP did not budge and refused to apologise for their comments. Instead, there were more vicious attacks, even dubbing him “anti-national”.

Comfortable in khadi

Doreswamy, clad in his signature khadi dhoti and kurta, does not seem very perturbed by what he was watching on TV.

“My life is an open book and I am confident the people will stand by me,” he says, baffled though he clearly is by the virulence of the attack. The untiring activist has been a leading voice against the CAA-NRC-NPR in the past few months. This also explains why he has been in the crosshairs of the BJP and Hindutva activists.

“Despite ideological differences, I could count many as friends in the BJP, and our arguments have been civil till now,” he says. “It is testimony to the complete intolerance of this regime to any criticism. Other critics have suffered far worse, being jailed or even killed. There is a systematic campaign to discredit and attack all voices of dissent.”

Drawing parallels with the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, he says the present regime is fast hurtling towards a situation that is far worse.

“Now you don’t need to impose Emergency,” he says with a wry smile. “During the Emergency, I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister saying the British were more magnanimous than her in dealing with political prisoners. I was arrested but the court let me off, saying that as a citizen I was free to write a letter to my Prime Minister, however critical it was,” he recounts.

What he is doing now is quite the same: exerting his rights as a citizen to be critical of government policies he thinks are disastrous. “I have called for the defeat of this regime and will continue to work towards that. It doesn’t make me anti-national. We need to differentiate between the government, the state and the nation.”

Witness to Partition

He has been a vocal critic of CAA-NRC-NPR because he believes that it not only seeks to polarise the country on religious lines, but is also antithetical to the founding principles of our nation. “I was a witness to Partition. Pakistan became a Muslim nation, we remained secular. Only a handful of Muslim families went to Pakistan from Karnataka. The Muslims here chose to be Indians. They cannot be asked to prove their citizenship now,” he says. Moreover, he believes that CAA-NRC-NPR is also a “tyranny of documentation” that is not part of the culture of a majority of Indians, and its implementation will only create chaos.

Freedom movement

The campaign against him has gone so far as to even question his age. The Opposition had to marshal documents to confirm that he had been jailed for over a year in the city in 1942 during the Quit India Movement, as proof of both his age and the fact that he indeed participated in the freedom movement. This “test” has left Doreswamy more amused than angry. “We have elected people who don’t know history, no harm telling them.”

He walks down memory lane to the early years of his association with the freedom movement. “Back then, we ensured three major textile mills in the city were shut down. These mills were preparing parachute cloth used by the Air Force. So this hit the war effor. I used to supply time bombs that were put into government record rooms to destroy records. But none were hurt,” he recounts. It was only later that he turned Gandhian in an absolute sense. He brought out a weekly, Pouravani (Citizen’s Voice), that the British banned, pushing him underground.

But post-Independence, he slowly distanced himself from the Congress and emerged as a leading voice of civil society. He was active in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement, the JP Movement against the Emergency and, more recently, India Against Corruption. He has also been an urban activist, fighting for Bengaluru’s lakes and sustainable solid waste management, asking the civic authorities to stop dumping waste into landfills in villages. As a result, the city got six waste processing plants in 2014. He led an effort to mainstream left-wing extremists, along with the slain editor-activist Gauri Lankesh, who often described him as a “rockstar.” He now heads a trust in her memory. He also leads a struggle that demands land for the landless.

Conscience of the state

Describing him as the “conscience of the state for the last 70 years,” historian Ramachandra Guha recounted how as a student in the 1980s he was part of movements for the rights of farmers and other vulnerable communities with Doreswamy. “He was already in public life for 40 years. I was inspired by him then. Now in my 60s, I am still inspired by him,” Guha said at a recent anti-CAA protest where the two shared a stage.

Doreswamy is enthused by the organic spurt of protests against CAA-NRC across the country, but cautions that unless well co-ordinated they may fizzle out. “Ideally such movements need leadership. But we have to accept there is no such leadership today even in the Opposition. This calls for more reflection, caution and strategy to ensure the movement is not misled,” he says. “Hindu-Muslim unity is key and we must not allow the regime to paint this as a ‘Muslim issue’. It is advisable that all protests have both Hindus and Muslims.”

Meanwhile, his well-wishers have been trying to “manage him emotionally” from the double onslaught of the recent death of his wife, a companion of over 70 years, and the attacks on him by the Hindutva right. But a seemingly unaffected Doreswamy is busy thinking of his next campaign.

“I have only participated in protests others have organised against this regime till now. I think it is time I launch my campaign. Narendra Modi has only been diverting attention from real issues. The economy is in the doldrums and there is severe unemployment. If the government doesn’t shift its focus to people’s issues by year end, I will launch a non-cooperation movement.”


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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 5:14:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/i-think-it-is-time-i-launch-my-campaign-hs-doreswamy/article31110267.ece

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