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Tridip Suhrud's Mahatma

It was a lovely evening in Ahmedabad, and I decided to go to Gandhi Ashram with a friend to have a chat with a senior Gandhi scholar who sits quietly in a modest, less than 10x10 room – Tridip Suhrud. Suhrud is currently involved in digitizing anything and everything related to Mahatma Gandhi. “We have already digitized nearly five lakh pages and put them online, including Gandhiji’s complete works. Once we have finished digitizing around 25 lakh pages, which would include works by all those who have worked and interacted with Gandhi, you wouldn’t need to go anywhere to do research on Gandhi. All you would need to do is to go online”, he tells me modestly as I begin talking to him.
A reputed social activist, Achyut Yagnik, known as an expert on Gujarat and Ahmedabad (Penguin has published his books on the cultural history of both), introduced me to Suhrud in mid-1990s. At that time, Suhrud was a faculty at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Thereafter, I would meet Suhrud…

Saheb's Soviet misadventure

The recent decision of the Gujarat chief minister’s office (CMO) to “bar” the entry of accredited journalists to enter the Swarnim Sankul – the swanky complex built to house Narendra Modi’s office and of his Cabinet colleagues – wasn’t surprising. Only those journalists who had prior appointment or were “invited” by officials sitting inside had to be allowed in. The decision was implemented for about a week, but was lifted because, to quote a Modi aide, it was imposed because of a “misunderstanding.” While the aide didn’t explain what this “misunderstanding” was, it left me wondering whether it reflected the suspicious character of the man who has come to known as “Saheb”.
The “official” reason forwarded for not allowing scribes was, there was an intelligence input which said a terrorist might enter into the Sankul in the garb of a journalist.
However, circumstantial evidence suggested that the “ban” was imposed in the wake of the snoopgate which is rocking Modi’s image. CMO knew: I…

Narendra Modi's solar eclipse

In was January-end 2008. I was planning a story on spurt of investment in Kutch district of Gujarat after the killer quake of January 26, 2001. I called up RJ Shah, then chief principal industrial advisor (a strange designation, I thought, principal and chief together!), and he immediately responded, saying, he had all the details and I should reach his office in the industries commissionerate in Udyog Bhawan, Gandhinagar. A diligent government official who always had all the industry figures on his tips – something which is a rarity in the babudom today – Shah scanned through his papers and was simply awestruck: “This is absolutely marvelous. Kutch has as of today Rs 78,688 crore worth of investment under implementation, which comes to 39 per cent of Gujarat.”
Then, Shah decided to have a closer look at the investment proposals, and one of them happened to be a solar project. “Wait, wait, wait”, he looked through his traditional spectacles. “This is really very strange. This solar …

Untouchability and Modi's babus

Recently, a prominent Gujarat-based activist handed me over a Gujarat government-sponsored report, "Impact of Caste Discrimination and Distinctions on Equal Opportunities: A Study of Gujarat", drafted in May 2013. Authored by a few CEPT University, Ahmedabad, scholars led by Prof R Parthasarathy, whom I know as a fine academic, I scanned through the report but was not shocked, as I knew it would simply reflect the mindset of the Gujarat government, especially when the issue involved is rather ticklish - untouchability.
It calls caste discrimination a matter of "perceptions", but so what? What does one expect from a government headed by Narendra Modi? Let me recall, in 2007 Modi got published some of his speeches he had delivered at the annual bureaucratic conclave, Chintan Shibir, in a book, "Karmayog", where he said, Valmikis cleaning up others' dirt was nothing but "an internal spiritual activity" which has "continued generation afte…

Modi, CMO and the so-called Tina factor

On May 31, when I visited Gujarat Sachivalaya, the centre of Narendra Modi's powerdom, there was commotion among state IAS babus. While I met a dozen-odd IAS officials, including some of the senior-most, one of them looked rather annoyed, despite being known to be so close to the CM. He had been asked to reach the new CM office, built as a separate building, but didn't want to go. He told me, "Hell. They have put a jammer. No mobiles work. Its nauseating. I don't want to go there."
Yet, this babu was was as frank as ever. Offering me a cup of tea, he told me that while a "decision" had been taken to reemploy retiring K Kailashnathan (KK to his colleagues) for the same job - KK headed the CM office for seven years - it "merely awaited" Modi's "red pen sign". I asked him bluntly: "But I was told you were offered the post. So you wouldn't replace KK?" He smiled, looked around, and blurted out: "My dear friend, le…

Politics and economics of Gujarat drought

Gujarat Sachivalaya is abuzz with a strange speculation. The speculation is especially significant as it is taking rounds of the top state corridors of power at a time when Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi has launched his month-long Krishi Mahotsav, an annual event to “teach” farmers what they should sow and how. While all agree in Sachivalaya that in the year 2012-13, Gujarat’s agricultural growth rate slipped in the negative, officials are unable to quantify the percentage.
Discussions have taken place on the matter, including at the highest level. While one bureaucrat said, in 2012-13, thanks to what he termed as “near-drought” situation, agricultural growth rate slipped to minus ( --) 3 per cent, another disagreed. “Soon you will hear from authoritative sources: Agriculture has slipped to around minus ( -- ) 13 per cent… In certain places in Gujarat, especially Saurashtra, you will be told, agricultural growth slipped to minus ( -- ) 22 per cent.”
There is reason to wonder. …

In the name of Gujarat's pride

Eight years ago, addressing a gathering of state forest officials at the sprawling campus of the Gujarat Forestry Research and Training Complex in the state capital, Gandhinagar, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi seemed a little unsettled. A few mediapersons too were present, and I happened to be one of them. On April 28, 2005, Modi was confronted with this ticklish query: Will Gir no longer be the only habitat of the Asiatic lion, often addressed as the “Pride of Gujarat”? Announcing that the Asiatic lion's population had risen to 359, a rise of 32 in five years, Modi seemed to feel it was enough to seek publicity on how animal conservation under him had taken new strides – at a time when he had already invited enough ire for failing to conserve the human during the Gujarat riots.
Puzzled by the query, he looked around, but no official dared tell him the truth. Refusing to take a stand on the issue (the Gujarat government for several years had been fighting against the “exper…

Urvish Kothari's Sardar

It was August 20, 2009 forenoon. I barged into the small cabin of a senior home department babu, an IAS bureaucrat who is currently working in the general administration department of the Narendra Modi administration, seeking to humbly “advise” the government on IAS postings. I found him “busier than he was”, to quote from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s characterizations. The babu was too engrossed in scanning through BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s book, “Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence”, banned by the Gujarat government a day earlier for allegedly casting aspersions on Sardar Patel’s supposed role in partitioning India. “I am too busy. I have been given the task of finding out the objectionable references which are critical of Sardar Patel”, the official said, frantically looking into the index pages on the backside of the hard cover book. Why now? I wondered. The book had already been banned! “So was the book banned without reading it? And when did you receive the book?”, I inquire…

Gujarat's swine flu puzzle

It was October 29, 2009 evening, around 5.00 pm. I had just reached my office in Gandhinagar after my routine round of Sachivalaya. A journalist-colleague, representing a vernacular daily, came down to me and told me that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, back from Russia, was suffering from swine flu. As a newsperson, I didn’t believe what he said, yet I tried to frantically find out whether this was true, but all in vain. Then sitting in the same building, Akhbar Bhavan, this journalist told me frankly, he had filed a story about this to his paper, but it was not being carried as his bosses in Ahmedabad found the information “humbug”. Hence, in retaliation he had decided to pass on the “exclusive” information, to which he alone was privy, to me and others. Thanks to this journalist, several newspapers quietly pushed out a news item about Modi suffering from swine flu as some sort of rumour with a punch-line (not uncommon) that there was no confirmation from official sources.Nex…

NGOs' foreign funding dilemma

This happened in 1995. Prof Indira Hirway, then working at the Gandhi Labour Institute, Ahmedabad, as senior faculty, handed over to me over a study she had just prepared on foreign funding of Gujarat NGOs, which I promptly reported in the Times of India without thinking about its repercussions. A highly sensitive issue, many activists were extremely angry with the report, more so because till then I had reported only on those realities of Gujarat which activists tried showing me — poor wages, caste divisions, impact of 'development' on vulnerable sections. They had found in me a "great friend" on whom one could rely upon. However, this report seemed to embarrass them. So much so, that the then Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR) director, late Prof Pravin Visaria, a top demographer, angrily refused entry to me in a seminar on development which he had organised with Gujarat NGO support. "You have already obliged us enough by your piece. "We do…

Wharton, Modi and Ania Loomba

This event took me back to my good old student days – mid-1970s. One of those who played a key role in the campaign against Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s aborted video-address to the Wharton India Economic Forum happens to be Ania Loomba, an active member of the left-wing student body in Delhi University to which I also belonged during my post-graduation days.
When Ania’s name appeared, I instantly informed about it to two of my other student-colleagues, Neeraj Nanda, who edits Melbourne-based South Asia Times, and Khursheed Latif, a Mumbai-based film-maker, who spends half the time in US. Neeraj was happy, saying it was “great news”, forwarding me her email ID and complete profile, while Khursheed curiously phoned me up to know more about Ania, and what she was doing. Ania is right now Catherine Bryson Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and her academic interests are wide ranging, including histories of race and colonialism, postcolonial studies, femini…

Wither Kanya Kelavni, Mr Modi?

A few days back, I was glancing through the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012, brought out in January by a high-profile NGO, Pratham. For the last few years, it had been making news, at least in Gujarat – each year, the survey results suggested poor quality of education dogging the state's primary schools. The new survey, interestingly, revealed that, instead of improving, Gujarat's educational standards have actually deteriorated over the last one year. As compared to 2011, when 79.7 per cent children in classes 1 and 2 could read letters, words and more, in 2012 this percentage went down to 73.The percentage of children of classes 1 and 2 who could recognize numbers 1-9 or more went down from 79 in 2011 to 71.7 in 2012. Things were found to be not very different for children in standards 3 to 5 or 6 to 8. Only a handful of Bimaru states scored better, that too in some sectors – Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.When I f…