Champion of Civic Politics: Keshav Rao Jadhav (1933-2018)

Keshav Rao Jadhav’s role as an individual and as rights activist was immense. After his death on 16 June 2018, Telangana has lost a great champion of civil and subaltern society activism and an optimist who instilled confidence and hope among the youth and students that change is possible provided we direct our effort to and strive for it.

In the times of crisis and a pervasive sense of cynicism, some individuals stand out as symbols of hope and possibilities, and spread optimism that almost feels infectious. Scholar, teacher and activist, Keshav Rao Jadhav, was one such person. In a context characterised by a marked rise of narrow sectarianism, conscious attempts at polarisation and a conspicuous narrowing of the middle ground, Jadhav was one person who stood up to bring together the conscientious civil society elements in an attempt to regain, protect and expand this space that could hold out the hope of dialogue across divergent groups and points of view without compromising on the respective basic convictions and respecting their identities. With the passing away of Jadhav on 16 June 2018 after a prolonged illness, Hyderabad and Telangana have lost a symbol of hope and a beacon of civil society activism.

Jadhav is one of that rare class of scholar–teacher–activist who signified the importance of dialogue across political, ideological and cultural spectrum marked by differences of view, conviction and action. The imprint of his thought and practice is familiar to anybody who has even remote familiarity with the political and social life of Hyderabad. The qualities of openness, tolerance and persuasiveness made him affable and respectable to anybody who came in contact with him.

Jadhav belonged to the politico-ideological persuasion in Indian intellectual and political life that is identified with Ram Manohar Lohia’s socialism. The socialists along with communists had been quite influential in the Hyderabad state and in fact emerged as a major anti-Congress political combine in the first general elections but gradually lost the sheen as the electoral politics overrode social politics under consequent Congress regimes. Jadhav belonging this tradition played a critical role in the student movement by forming Hyderabad Students' Union and later as a faculty member in Osmania University, he was active and in fact influential in the teachers’ movement, through Citizens for Democracy in the civil rights and Telangana state demand movement in the late 1960s and since the late 1990s.

Voice of the Subaltern

Jadhav’s life, in fact, is a reflection of the 20th and early 21st century public life in Hyderabad and Telangana. While the mainstream political life is the embodiment of or rather expression of the forces of dominance in religious, caste and class terms, Jadhav was a noticeable voice of the subaltern in varied forms. Subaltern politics and movements in Hyderabad, given their complex history, have been marked by religious plurality, linguistic diversity, cultural compositeness and socio-economic unevenness that is historically determined and inherited. In Jadhav’s life we see both a reflection of, and an effort to respond to this multifaceted reality.  

Born in an Arya Samaj family, the early exposure to it in fact has its impact on him as he used to recollect how it in fact made him open or sympathetic to subaltern castes and even influenced him as he often fondly recollected and enabled him to graduate to socialist politics and develop a firm conviction in the “anti-caste project.”

Conversations with Jadhav were always marked by an excitement for rootedness of both ideas and practices and how they have evolved and transformed over a period of time. In this sense he saw Arya Samaj as an important initial step that could be transformed into anti-caste movement. In the specific context of the Nizam’s feudal Hyderabad state, Arya Samaj acted as a platform for expressing the rights of Hindus and a number of leaders initially influenced by it subsequently became prominent figures in the Congress, socialist and even communist politics.

Jadhav’s life encompassed all the liberatory and aspirational movements of the Hyderabad state and Telangana region. Born in 1933, in Hussaini Alam in the old city of Hyderabad, he came under the influence of his paternal and maternal uncles who were jailed for their role in the anti-Nizam struggle and were seen as a source of inspiration. He would admiringly recall the high value of public service they practised and as evidence he would cite their refusal to accept the freedom fighters’ pension even when it was offered.

Mulki Movement

His first major participation was in the agitation against non-mulkis (non-locals) in 1952 as a student of the elite Nizam college in Hyderabad. It may be noted that the dominant presence of non-mulkis in public employment has been a problem in the Hyderabad state since the early 20th century as the Nizam sought to import personnel knowledgeable in Persian and also experienced in running administration from north India. These people not only belonged to the Muslim community but also to Hindu religion like for instance the Kayasthas of north India. They in fact came to dominate liberal, professional and technical fields in the Hyderabad state. The local Muslims and of course also Hindus felt discriminated vis-à-vis these elite migrants in the public employment in terms of both entry and also promotions. This discontentment against the dominance of these migrants took agitational form periodically during the Nizam’s reign also later after the Hyderabad became part of the Indian union.

The “mulki” and “non-mulki” conflicts assumed a different and serious proportion after the integration of Hyderabad in the Indian union in 1948. This opened opportunities for the English educated elite from the Madras Presidency who obviously had an advantage over the traditional Urdu educated employees of Hyderabad state. With the formation of the Telugu state of Andhra Pradesh (AP) in 1956 following the merger of Telangana with Andhra region had only further intensified the discontent resulting in the year-long movement for the separate state of Telangana in the late 1960s. Even the States’ Reorganisation Commission expressed  serious apprehensions that the merger of backward Telangana with the advanced Andhra that was part of the British governed Madras Presidency could create problems associated with the uneven development of these regions. Soon, it became evident that the political elite of Andhra were benefiting from the advances in the field of education, employment and economy the middle classes, economic and they were in an advantageous position compared to the people from Telangana. This was evident in the disproportionately high share accrued to them in education, employment and promotions. It was also in contravention of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” that was the basis of Telangana’s acceptance to be part of Telugu state of AP.  The students and employees began the agitation against the violation of the rights of the mulkis agreed upon and safeguards meant to protect them. Obviously being the premier university in the region, the students and teachers of Osmania University were leading the movement. Having joined the faculty and being an active member of the Osmania University teachers’ association Jadhav was in forefront of this agitation.

Ardent Follower of Ram Manohar Lohia

After Lohia’s death in 1967, Jadhav, along with some of his friends founded the Lohia Vichar Manch, based in Hyderabad, to engage with the thought and politics of Lohia through the publication of his writings and by organising discussions. Later, Jadhav started a trilingual (English, Urdu and Telugu) journal Olympus meant to be a broad secular, socialist and non-sectarian platform for discussions. With meagre resources, he had to struggle to bring it out on a regular basis. Despite having abundant good will, he never tried to create a secure fund for it because he believed that as the voice of struggles it must struggle to survive. His understanding, persuasive abilities and sincerity endeared him to the teachers and students cutting across ideological and organisational differences and made him stand out as a unique public personality in the larger Telangana society with an appreciable following.

What highlights the idealism and beauty of the persona of Jadhav was his role in the anti-emergency struggle for which he had to face suspension from the university and jail-term during the emergency. Later when Indira Gandhi chose to contest from the Medak parliament seat and when nobody from the Opposition was forthcoming to be fielded against her, Jadhav took it upon himself to challenge her even when her victory was a foregone conclusion as he believed that one who inflicted draconian “Emergency Raj” on the country should not go unchallenged and not be allowed to enjoy the aura of invincibility. Electoral contests for him provided an opportunity to expose the bankruptcy of mainstream parties and their politics and to spread message of alternative politics. In his view, elections should be seen as a terrain of contestation of ideas and policies.

Like other Lohiate socialists, Jadhav shared a distinct “anti-Congressism.” However, he consciously sought space for open and live dialogue even with his political adversaries. He often prided in the fact that he had followers in different parties who often looked up to him for advice and guidance. He was sensitive to these small spaces and saw possibilities of change in them.    

Anti-communal Initiatives

Hyderabad saw an intensified communal polarisation in the early 1980s. With the formation of the Ganesh Nimajjanam Samiti in 1980 at the behest of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, Hindu Raksha Samiti , Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Ganesh festival came to assume a massive significance as the symbol of Hindu unity in the city. With the then Chief Minister M Chenna Reddy inaugurating it, the festival acquired legitimacy and support. This prepared the ground for a tense communal situation in the old city of Hyderabad and led to frequent riots which were engineered to corner electoral dividends rather than being spontaneous. Jadhav took the initiative to form the Hyderabad Ekta group consisting of people from a wide spectrum of civil society groups related to variety of spheres like civil rights, women groups, non-governmental organisations, media, and educational institutions.

Hyderabad Ekta group played a critical role in informing by reaching out to the official machinery of the where, when and what kind of intervention was required; it took up relief activity and strove for the post-riot restoration of social harmony and peace through dialogue and social interaction. It was Jadhav’s firm conviction that the attempts to assuage popular anger and anxieties have to be done mainly through the civil society initiatives and cannot be left entirely to the state administration and political parties.

Jadhav’s role as an individual and as rights activist was immense and he was present whenever and wherever there was a crisis and civil society intervention was needed. He played an important role in providing fodder for cattle and arranging for food centres in the drought prone districts of Telangana in the 1980s which acted as pressure on the government to respond. His response to the farm crisis and handloom crisis that had resulted in a series of suicides was not limited to “fact-finding” alone but included providing relief to the effected families in whatever limited way that one could. He motivated his co-activists to pay attention to this dimension.

Telangana Movement                       

He was instrumental in keeping the cause of Telangana in focus through continuous public debate. Telangana’s backwardness is sought to be theorised as an outcome of “internal colonisation” of the region by Andhra capitalists and elite.  His role in the Telangana movement that began in the 1990s which eventually culminated in the formation of the state in 2014 was remarkable as he consistently sought to bring intellectuals, activists of different ideological persuasion and politico-organisational affiliations on to one platform on the issue of Telangana identity and integrity. What ignited it was the aggressive neo-liberal policy dispensation of the N Chandrababu Naidu regime which is generally perceived as playing havoc with spatial and social life in Telangana region.

Jadhav’s vision of Telangana radically differed from that of the so-called mainstream thinking. He was strongly opposed to one-upmanship in the matter of leadership as it would lead to the autocratic tendency and result in the defeat of the very purpose of the struggle. He always insisted that the leadership of social movements have to be collective, participatory and democratic. For him, a resolution of social and political problems was possible only when they issues are addressed and resolved democratically.

This is the basis of his opposition to the dominant political and party culture that nurtured the cult of the individual and almost entirely made politics election-centric. This was the principle that was the basis of his criticism of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) which sought to project K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) as the “sole” champion of the Telangana movement. In the absence of any credible social agenda, the TRS all through pursued the politics of electoral game and emphasised on lobbying as a sure path to achieving the goal.

There are close parallels between the Marri Chenna Reddy-led Telangana Praja Samithi (TPS) and KCR-led TRS for both sought to put the leaders above the movements when as a matter of fact in both the cases the popular mobilisation was spontaneous, autonomous and above party politics. They were sought to be claimed and owned by the TPS and TRS as they believed that finally it could be settled only through political decision. Jadhav always alerted us to the dangers of the possibility of the reduction of the movement to party and electoral politics. In contrast, he believed that civil society should be in a decisive position in terms of setting agenda, leading the movement and influencing the decision-making process.[1]

What happened after the Telangana formation clearly affirmed Jadhav’s apprehensions. The TRS, once in power, put all its might to render the civil society ineffective by co-opting the active elements that emerged during the decade-long movement by offering positions, sought to neutralise popular forces through populism and render the opposition vacuous by attracting the opposition leaders and cadre on to its side. The post-Telangana state formation developments do not proximate even remotely with the democratic, social and pluralist political vision and the centrality of civic activism that was integral to the popular Telangana movement and symbolised by individuals such as Jadhav.

In Jadhav’s death, Telangana has lost a great champion of civil and subaltern society activism and an optimist who instilled confidence and hope among the youth and students that change is possible provided we direct our effort to and strive for it. To celebrate his memory is to remember, recollect and retell what he symbolised through his conviction and practice, that are the values of secularism, equality, democracy and that their realisation is possible only by building a vibrant civil and subaltern society. 

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