From the mid-1970s to recent times, if anyone wanted to understand, report on or research Gujarat, the mandatory first stop was invariably Achyut Yagnik. He was a one-man storehouse of information, details, anecdotes, data and insight about the political landscape of the state and its society’s passions and prejudices.
He passed away early this morning. And all social scientists who ever wrote about Gujarat will feel a personal loss.
He was always “Achyut Bhai”, always available for a spot of conversation, or a dialogue if you preferred, or a declamation if you had the discipline of patience. Either way, it was always a rewarding encounter.
His office (SETU – Centre for Social Knowledge and Action) near the Commerce College char-rasta resembled an ashram in its bare austerity but suggested the ambience of a coffee house, where over many cups of syrupy tea – and the smoke of his never-extinguished cigarette – the visiting interlocutor could get tutored into the nuances of the latest developments, be it the Navnirman Movement, the anti-reservations riots of 1981, the 1985-86 communal flare-up, the anti-Narmada dam movement, the 1990-92 Ayodhya violence, or the horrible, horrible 2002 carnage. After a few hours with him, the reporter improved his copy, the columnist enriched her insight and the researcher came back with more homework to do before the dissertation could be submitted.
Like that traditional pandit/purohit who knew the clan’s horoscopes, Achyut Bhai was the original ‘Google’ when it came to the political crowd of the 1980s and 1990s – Sanat Mehta, Jinabhai Darji, Madhavsinh Solanki, Chiman Lal Patel, Ashok Bhatt, Keshubhai Patel, Shankarsinh Vaghela, etc. They all respected him and valued his views. Gujarat was still a tolerant place and many newspapers were eager to publish his columns.
Social activists like Medha Patkar, Bela Bhatia, Madhusudan Mistry or Indukumar Jani, or academics like Dhirubhai Seth, Ashis Nandy, Harsh Sethi, Ghansyam Shah or Anil Bhat, or influentials like Sam Pitroda, Lord Bhiku Parikh or Meghnad Desai, or researchers like Shalini Randheria, all made a beeline to the SETU office. Serving and retired bureaucrats often dropped in to understand or clarify this or that policy initiative originating from Gandhinagar.
Achyut Bhai was an odd man out in the Ahmedabad society, which invariably judged and adored or scorned people based on their bank balance. In a society that culturally prioritised wealth over knowledge, he was a man who lived on his own terms. He never allowed himself to be ensnared by the pretences and practices of the very, very rich Ahmedabadis and their ecosystem because he could see through the hypocrisy. Against the entitled arrogance of the establishment, he pitted the clarity of his own academic solidity, anchored in intellectual honesty and personal ethics. He died an almost penniless man, but he would have had no regrets because he also lived like most honoured among the honourable citizens of Gujarat.
Achyut Bhai himself personified the very idea of a robust civil society – keeping a firm distance from the wielders of power in Gandhinagar yet willing to engage with “authority” on behalf of the poor and the underprivileged. He was available to any NGO, any movement, any group wanting to correct this or that economic injustice in any part of Gujarat. Achyut Bhai would often direct the aggrieved party to the late Girishbhai Patel, the intrepid lawyer who fought, pro bono, interminable injustices all over Gujarat.
And then came the 2000s. Gujarat changed; new economic forces and their political proxies took over politics, society and media. The new Gujarat had no use for Achyut Bhai’s views or ideas; yet he remained, till his very last, the unavoidable stop for anyone wanting to discern the transformation that had overwhelmed all the good men and women of Gujarat. It was time for Achyut Bhai to move on, and he did – again, on his own terms. Amen.
Harish Khare is a former editor-in-chief of The Tribune.