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When Keshav Desiraju died, my first reaction – after the initial shock – was to write about him. Within hours, I sent my tribute to the Indian Express, where it ran the next day. I wasn’t the only one. The historian Ramachandra Guha, a close friend of Desiraju’s, commented that the avalanche of praise for a retired civil servant from top-level bureaucrats, activists, politicians, public health stalwarts and educationists was unprecedented in his experience.
I have a theory about what prompted it.
Desiraju retired as an IAS officer with unquestioned integrity. In spite of a political smear campaign to malign him, he emerged unscathed. A lifetime of honesty couldn’t be destroyed by one last-minute vendetta, however desperate its architects were for credibility. (For those who may not have followed the story, when Desiraju was health secretary for the Government of India he was asked to sign off on the appointment of a doctor, well-known for corruption, to the Medical Council of India. When he refused, he was fired and then pilloried in the press as if he was the one at fault. He ended his career as secretary for consumer affairs.)
It was the UPA government which had tried unsuccessfully to compromise him but by the time he retired in 2016, the BJP was in power – a far more malevolent party bent, as Keshav saw it, not only on destroying the institutions he had worked so hard to strengthen but on actively creating division and hatred throughout the country. By the time of his death, they had succeeded beyond his worst nightmares.
Keshav was not an activist. He did not make grand political statements in the public square nor would he be found at demonstrations or on picket lines. That wasn’t his style. Yet he served actively on dozens of boards of organisations working for the rights of the disabled and the mentally ill; for good governance and women’s health; for palliative care, human rights, secularism and education.
That stubborn focus on the hard work of nation building is what set him apart. Long after retirement, long after having been vindictively treated by the government he had served his entire working life, Keshav kept right on keeping on: championing the public good, keeping his head down, doing what needed to be done.
With the decline in standards that we have grown accustomed to in politicians and bureaucrats alike, Desiraju’s intellect and scholarship now seems almost unbelievable. A Renaissance man, he was gifted in languages, blessed with the ability to speak ex tempore on an astonishing range of subjects, passionate about music, the environment and literature far beyond the requirements of his job description. A young teacher who had never met him wrote to me after attending a memorial my organisation helped to organise: “I’ve never felt such a sense of pride for a fellow Indian. Hearing about him from people who knew him so well was such an honour and a great learning! I felt this sense of patriotism listening to everyone talk about him. He touched so many lives, across generations. It was so humbling to hear about him.”
In the darkest of dark times, Keshav stood like a beacon of light, reminding us that after the dynastic and self-serving politics of the Congress party, after Amit Shah, after Narendra Modi, after the RSS and the BJP, after the hatred and the lynchings and the senseless rage of a Hinduism that speaks only for a tiny minority of Hindus, the need for health care, education and music (always music!) remains. Someone has to keep the institutions alive.
And that is why all the IAS officers, the teachers, the doctors, the public health crowd, the disability and the mental health activists, the secularists and the good governance wallas have come out in such unprecedented numbers to praise him and thank him and remember him. We all want to be counted too.
Many in this number have chosen not to be politically active or vocal in their views. But to praise Desiraju is, by definition, to damn the status quo. To believe in the vision of India which he epitomised – a culture of grace, humility, devotion to duty, country above self – is to reject the hellish nightmare being offered by the so-called leaders of the moment.
Those who have spoken eloquently in memory of Keshav and in praise of his life are doing it because they can still imagine the possibility of change. That’s why we speak. But more than that, we speak to give ourselves courage to continue the task of nation building, remembering that what people need is not communalism, enmity and division but self-respect and jobs. Healthcare. Education. Beauty. Dignity.
Keshav’s fight is our fight. He is gone but he is still with us. We are here and we are legion.
Jo McGowan Chopra is American by birth and a writer by profession. A mother of three, she has lived in India for the past 34 years with her Indian husband. She is co-founder and director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a voluntary organisation for children with disability in Dehradun. She blogs at www.latikaroy.org/jo.