How an apolitical physicist, devoted to fundamental scientific research, was transformed into a tireless crusader for peace and justice. A tribute to Mukul Sinha, the lawyer activist from Gujarat
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]wo events altered his life forever. The first was when he witnessed a supervisor disrespectfully berating and kick a junior employee, which transformed a young apolitical physicist, who was passionately devoted to fundamental scientific research, into a tireless trade-unionist. The second – seeing his beloved adopted city Ahmedabad burn with tumultuous hate violence for many weeks in 2002 – thrust him into the heart of many battles against state power malevolently exercised against people of minority faiths. When Mukul Sinha succumbed to a particularly deadly stream of cancer in the summer of 2014, just weeks before Narendra Modi was swept to power, the country lost one if its bravest, most forthright voices for justice.
Raised in the railway enclave of the small district town of Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh where his father served, the young man had clearly worked out his chosen career as a scientist. After graduating in physics from IIT Kanpur, his elected life pathway seemed neatly laid out for him when, in 1973, he was accepted for his doctoral studies in plasma physics in the prestigious Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad. Founded in 1947 by the legendary Vikram Sarabhai, this apex space research institute undertakes fundamental research in physics, space and atmospheric sciences, astronomy, solar physics and planetary geo-sciences. This was where India’s first space satellite was born. It was a cloistered intellectual world, separated it seemed by light years from the turbulent life of fighting injustice which Mukul was to ultimately choose.
The course of his life changed irrevocably when the young PhD scholar could not come to terms with the cold reality of injustice, when he discovered that there existed no redress for the employee of the establishment in which he studies who he saw being kicked and humiliated by his supervisor. There were no unions until then at the PRL, or indeed in any public scientific establishment. His took up cudgels on the employee’s behalf, and was sternly warned even then that if he persisted on this path, this would spell the ruin of his scientific career. Undaunted, he pressed for the creation of a trade union in PRL, and succeeded in constituting it in 1978. However, he had to knock on the door of the High Court to finally ensure that the union was registered.
Matters came to a head when PRL announced a lock-out and 133 staff were sacked, stoutly opposed by Mukul. Dismayed by his activism, the management of the Laboratory terminated his studies the same year, in 1979, and notified him that they would ensure that he would not be admitted in any scientific centre in the country. He fought a long and unsuccessful battle for his reinstatement in the courts. The option to migrate to a western country existed, but he vowed that he would work only in India.
He became a hero for workers, not just in scientific and educational establishments, but also many factories. Meanwhile in 1977, he had found a life-partner in a colleague in PRL, fellow-physicist Nirjhari. She encouraged him to persist with his trade-union work, and later to study law to secure the rights of workers. For 10 years, Nirjhari was the sole bread-earner in the family, until 1989 when Mukul joined the bar.
Mukul’s reputation as a fierce defender of workers’ rights flourished rapidly, as he fought many legal battles on behalf of contracts workers, daily- wagers, and those fighting for statutory minimum wages, elementary job security and the right to form unions. He refused to charge workers fees for their defence. Nirjhari supported his work at every step. He also fought for the rights of slum-dwellers to the city, and their protection against demolitions. She recalls that their original politics was just of basic democratic freedoms. But as they immersed themselves more and more in the injustice which workers struggle against as a way of life, they became increasingly radicalised. They constituted a larger social alliance under the banner of the Jan Sangharsh Morcha in 1989, and spear-headed the New Socialist Movement.
Once again their lives settled to its new rhythm, an exhilarating routine of fighting through courts the inequities which are customary in the work-lives of nine out of ten workers in India. But then the tempest of hate violence was unleashed in 2002 in Ahmedabad and across Gujarat, altering again the course of many lives, including Mukul’s, Nirjhari’s and indeed also my own.
It was a moment of history which also forged new friendships built around political and ethical solidarities, and I have treasured memories of evenings at Mukul and Nirjhari’s home during the early years after the carnage. After heart-breaking visits to camps and colonies housing survivors battling incredible loss and pain and injustice, we needed each other to share the burdens our souls carried. I recall long nights in which we would sing old sentimental Hindi songs, dominated by Mukul’s splendid baritone. The comradeship of those evenings gave each of us the strength to battle on. It is an abiding regret for me is that with the passing of the years, each of us took position on different battlefields in the same war, and while we respected the others’ work, we did not take enough care to make the same time to just be together, and take power from one another.
Mukul was honest enough to recognise in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim massacre in 2002 – to his shock and dismay – how deeply divided vertically were workers’ unions, on starkly communal lines. On the May Day Rally that year, he spotted two Muslim workers in the gathering. He asked them to stand up, and declared, ‘If our unemployment, low wages, lack of job security, the hunger and disease that stalks our homes, all these are due to these Muslims, I will take the lead in setting these two workers on fire. After that all will be well with us!’ The workers instead carried their Muslim comrades on their shoulders all the way to the office of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, raising slogans not just for workers’ rights but also Hindu-Muslim unity.
Mukul Sinha’s influence on the battles for justice in Gujarat after the 2002 carnage are phenomenal. He contributed invaluably to the legal battles for justice in the Naroda Patiya massacres. Most activists chose to boycott the Justice Nanavati-Shah Judicial Commission constituted to investigate the riots, regarding such engagement futile because it was transparently partisan. But Mukul was convinced that this was a democratic forum which must be used to create a permanent official record for history of what actually transpired during those dark weeks. He therefore spent many years engaging with the proceedings of the Commission, cross-examining numerous civil servants, policepersons, and activists of the range of Hindutva bodies. The chilling record which he created of culpable and criminal state sponsorship and organisation of the communal carnage did not influence the findings of the Commission (these are not public available at the time of writing, but I rely on reports in the press). But one of Mukul’s most enduring contributions to democratic justice in the country was to prevent the erasure of this history through the creation of official records of the Commission.
He also skilfully deployed his training in science to convincingly demolish the officially purveyed version of what led to the tragic burning of the train compartment in Godhra on February 27, 2002, which became the flashpoint which led to the brutal retaliatory violence which followed in its wake. Critical to the official and Hindu nationalist interpretation of what led to the train burning was that this was a deliberate, pre-planned terrorist attack. But Mukul demonstrated that it was humanly impossible for the petrol to be thrown from outside as was alleged, and that the burns of most victims were not from feet upwards as would have been the case if inflammable liquid had been poured into the compartment and set alight; the burns were instead from head downwards to the waist. With this and other scientific evidence which he marshalled, he convinced the other Judicial Commission of Justice Bannerjee that this was not a pre-panned attack, but likely to have been a tragic accident.
It was he who stood in court in defence of upright police officers Rajnish Rai and Rahul Sharma, who faced disciplinary action from the government in connection with their actions for justice. He was lawyer for the families of many persons killed in alleged fake encounters, including Javed Shaikh who was killed along with Ishrat Jahan and two other men in an encounter in 2004, Sohrabuddin, killed in 2005, and Tulsiram Prajapati, killed in 2006.
In the course of all of this, Nirjhari was the first in the couple to fall prey to cancer in 2005, after which she took voluntary retirement from her employment as a scientist. In order to ensure that she did not lose morale recuperating in bed, Mukul charged her with analysing the mobile phone records of the critical three weeks of the carnage, and this helped supply to the defence vital evidence in court cases like Naroda to confirm that powerful political leaders were either leading killing mobs or directing them from the police control rooms; and other mobile phone records to lay bare the role of the then Home Minister and senior police officers during a succession of police ‘encounter’ killings.
But then in August 2013, Mukul was himself diagnosed with small cell cancer. He was informed that 95 percent survivors do not survive beyond one year of diagnosis. He bore the news stoically and with dignity. This was the time Narendra Modi was campaigning powerfully in a bid to win a mandate to lead the country. From his hospital bed, he designed with his son a website titled Truth of Gujarat. Journalist Rana Ayyub recalls: ‘Throughout his agonizing series of chemo therapies he would dictate posts to his son Pratik for the “Truth of Gujarat” website, discuss elections, (and) listen to songs of trade unions from across the world. His recent favourite was a number sung by a Pakistani artist on the rights of daily wage workers killed in a factory’.
He died just days before he could witness the massive electoral mandate won by the man he was convinced was most culpable for the carnage in 2002. But if was alive today, I am sure Mukul Sinha would not have either despaired or been despondent. It would have spurred him even more resolutely to battle to reclaim the secular democratic republic he so passionately believed in. It may have been the third decisive turning point in his life. We salute and miss you, Comrade Mukul Sinha. We need you today more than we ever did.
Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer, who works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, as well as homeless persons and street children. He is the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies and a Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case. This originally appeared in Kafila