P Sainath: The Anti-Mahatma?

Will Sainath ever move from chronicler to doer, crossing the line separating journalism from activism, man from Mahatma?

ByAnand Ranganathan
P Sainath: The Anti-Mahatma?
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We are a harsh nation. Harsh because we have one million gods, but only one Mahatma. The gods we remember all year round; the Mahatma two days a year, both dry.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. We call him the Mahatma, and calling him so makes it convenient for us to forget that he was a human being. When we remember him – especially on those dry days – we remember him fondly, as a leader who gave us our freedom from British tyranny, fought tirelessly against the scourge of untouchability, and, despite being born in a nation stained with blood-splattered battlefields and consciences, taught us the concept of non-violence.

For all the newspaper eulogies and rose petals that we shower our beloved Mahatma with, what we don’t seem to remember very well is that, above all, he was a journalist (see the first article in The Hindu trilogy). And the reason why we forget this fact is that, in a leap of faith unbelievably exceptional, he transcended the line considered oh-so-sanctimonious for a journalist: just observe and report, don’t take part. Don’t jump the line.

Well, MKG did exactly that – he jumped the line, time and time and time again.

“To hell with writing a thousand word op-ed on caste discrimination, boys, I’ve had enough! Take good care of my goats – I’ll see you soon”, one can almost imagine Bapu telling his fellow-columnists, before he slipped his khadauns on and marched over to a temple demanding that it be thrown open for the oppressed and the denied.

Dozens of journalists may have written prior to Dandi about the ludicrousness and injustice of a salt-tax through their columns and editorials, but what is etched ultimately in our collective memory is not their beautifully worded protest or a critique of the British tax policy (“Wah! Kya likhtain hain, janab!”). What makes our hair stand on end, instead, is the image of a half-naked journalist walking briskly a thousand dusty miles just to raise a fistful of sand high up in the air for all to see and cheer. That is jumping in; that is crossing over the line which separates journalism from activism, observer from doer, man from Mahatma.

So the question is this: in a nation that cries out daily for a leader of some calibre, is it good enough for a journalist to merely observe and report and not lead those he is observing?

I talk here of P Sainath, a Hindu institution, and the man who could have been the Mahatma but decided in his own wisdom not to.

My argument, I understand only too well, is harsh – after all, who am I to criticise someone who has devoted his whole life to the cause of writing about Bharat? In fact, my arguments may disgust and pain Sainath, and for that I can only offer my apologies, but I am not going to stop now, sorry. Time is of essence. Before Rahul Gandhi readies his brood of fifty leaders who will rule us for the next few generations, I feel the time is ripe for the common citizenry to make their own list.

P Sainath is on my list. But first let me topple his giant cut-outs that adorn the entrance to his beloved Kasturi building.

When does a problem become so colossal and seemingly insurmountable that the nation demands a leader and not simply a journalist?

As famine struck with unparalleled ferocity, scores of farmers starved to death, and their children, with blobs of snot seeping down their noses, with their bellies distended and their bodies horribly mangled, the children looked at the bleak horizon with the sort of beseeching eyes one prays no one gets to lock into a stare. The villagers were dying; there was no money, no food, no water, and no hope. Forced to cultivate cash-crops by the ruthless State and the unforgiving landlords, the farmers realised to their collective horror that one can only sell a cash-crop, not consume it. But what happens when those buying the produce have fixed the price to their liking? The only way out is suicide.

This description is not of Vidharba or Kalahandi that Sainath has witnessed and described meticulously in his countless columns and essays for The Hindu. It attempts to depict, instead, the fate of the farmers of Champaran, Bihar, in 1917. What was true almost a century ago, before the advent of fighter jets and laptops and iPhones, holds true even today. Except that when a journalist came to know of the appalling state of farmers in Champaran, he dropped his pen and picked up his lathi.

Writing about state cruelty was no longer enough, doing something about it was what was needed. It was time to act on the misery, not catalogue it.

MKG established his base at Champaran, rallied the villagers, started schools and hospitals, led protests, organised strikes, was arrested, and promptly brought to court.

In court, hands clasped in front of him, bare-chested and with a wobbly stance, he looked at the judge and said: “As a law-abiding citizen my first instinct would be to obey the order served upon me. But I could not do so without doing violence to my sense of duty to those for whom I have come. I feel that I could serve them only by remaining in their midst…I have disregarded the order served upon me, not for want to respect lawful authority, but in obedience of the higher law of our being – the voice of conscience…I would submit without protest to whatever penalty that is imposed upon me.”

Tears wouldn’t stop, Sainath, tears wouldn’t stop, as I watched your film Nero’s Guests, as I saw you interview the families and children of the hundreds of farmers who had committed suicide. Their bellies weren’t distended, nor were their limbs mangled, but their eyes, Sainath, their eyes. And I saw you fill up form after form with your Reynolds as you sat across them like a census-walah. I saw you fill up their despair in empty boxes and empty spaces, after colons, before dashes, I saw you do all of that. I saw you take photos of them as they stood by their thatched shacks and stared blankly at the camera. You saw them through the viewfinder but I saw them through your eyes, Sainath!

They say it takes a lot for a man to cry, but they know nothing! It only takes a man to be an Indian to cry. And you, Sainath? You were stoic through it all, like a sarkari babu who goes house to house asking how many TVs do you have, do you have a scooter or have you graduated to a car, is this your house or are you a tenant…how many in your family have committed suicide?

And your labour of love, your reason to be alive, your “calling”, has been to go from village to village, district to district, and catalogue and chronicle and tabulate and tally and then write unimpeachable essays and columns. Is that all? Are you not perturbed, Sainath, by how you make grown men cry?

The soft clay that gets baked ultimately into a nation – our nation – Sainath, is the clay of untold misery. It is that same clay that trundles down our mountains and is washed over by the sin-obliterating waters of our holy rivers, and while you wait, Sainath, to receive that same clay, receive it in your trembling hands at Gangasagar before it is lost forever in the vast oceans of apathy, while you wait for that clay so you may shape it into objet d’arts so grotesque, so gut-wrenching, so monstrous, so eye-popping, that our leaders, our politicians may be moved to tears…

What eye-popping, what tears? They’re all blind, Sainath, every last one of them.

Ever since you started writing on farmers’ suicides, the suicide rate has only gone up. 10,720 farmers committed suicide in 1995, 15,964 in 2010. How many photographs did you collect in those 15 years? How many silent eyes are staring back at you?

If I am scathing towards you, Sainath, it is because I want more, much more from people like you. There are thousands of chroniclers in this country, didn’t you know! But there has only ever been one Mahatma.

So leave aside all those op-eds and columns that you write for The Hindu in the hope that caviar consuming cretins will sit up and take notice, abandon those lecture tours and talk circuits, stop wasting time on irrelevant planning commissioners who think restricted-entry toilets are the temples of modern India – leave all those column-yards for the pretenders so they may satiate their hypocritical need to curse capitalism and human enterprise and the western world.

Stand up, Sainath. Jump that line!

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