Kalikho Pul, who passed away on August 9, had set a unique example of how education coupled with the power of democracy can have a transformative impact.
In the mid-1980s, Pul was a student of Hawai Middle School in Lohit, Arunachal Pradesh. He was a lot older than the rest of the students of his class. It was hard to know then that the seemingly unassuming student, who would come to our house every week, play in our backyard and do his homework in our drawing room, would one day rise to become one of the longest serving finance ministers of the state and one of the youngest chief minsters of independent India.
The beginning of Pul’s life was as dramatic as his end.
He was born in Walla Basti, a village close to Hawai circle on July 20, 1969. In those days and until the late 1980s, Hawai was geographically cut off from the rest of India for most of the year. The only way to reach it was by trekking on foot from Hayuliang, which took about two to four days along the banks of the roaring Lohit. There was a CRPF camp along with posts of the Indian army stationed there permanently since the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Food was dropped by aeroplane when the weather was fine during summer, for the army as well as civilians. Patients had to be airlifted in case of emergencies, but when the weather was bad, death was the only option. Stories of cloudbursts and villages being washed away were common. It is not surprising then that Pul’s parents died early, leaving him all alone.
Poverty around Hawai, one of the most sparsely populated regions of India, was extreme. But Pul’s family was even poorer. He spent his days looking for firewood for his aunt, in the high hills around Walla Basti. Eventually he ran away from home and took up a job as a carpenter at the city’s district craft centre, which was a couple of miles away.
One day, Ram Naresh Prasad Sinha, the headmaster of Hawai Middle School, called someone for repair work at the school and Pul turned up. His dedication towards work and attentiveness to detail left the headmaster impressed. He advised Pul to join the night school that he managed for adults. I still remember him taking a lantern and a torch at night so that he could teach a group of enthusiastic learners, aged between 14 and 70. Pul excelled at his lessons and soon, the headmaster felt that he could be admitted to regular school provided he left his job as a carpenter.
Sinha had a policy of offering admission to anyone who wanted to learn, irrespective of age. On Sunday mornings, there would often be a large crowd comprising people aged between 5 and 18 years who wanted to start school from the first standard. At times, it was difficult to distinguish between the parents and the wards. When Pul expressed his desire for regular admission, Sinha immediately agreed. However, there was an additional problem besides his job: he was too old for the first standard and getting admitted to the sixth or seventh standard was not only risky, but illegal as well and could have potentially jeopardised his career.
Around that time, the education minister and the district commissioner had come on a visit. Sinha, who was an English teacher, called Pul at home and prepared a fine speech for him and said that he would be considered for regular school if he delivered the speech well. Pul’s brilliant speech left the minister impressed. Sinha put his case before the minister, requesting him to formulate some general policies in the state towards admission of students from night school to regular school without the need of school leaving certificates.
A couple of months later, Pul joined the sixth standard at Hawai Middle School, and was given a place in the hostel where food, clothing and shelter were provided by the government. He still faced a problem: his family members were dependent on his earnings and thus he thought of leaving school. So Sinha spoke with the circle officer and arranged a job for Pul as a night watchman. Pul was not obliged to do the job as there was some form of implicit understanding with the circle officer.
The school headmaster had always stressed that every student must learn to deliver speeches in public. In that environment, Pul honed his eloquent style. By the time he reached the eighth standard, the headmaster made him the general secretary and he was responsible for organising school activities. He also had the additional responsibility of procuring the hostel rations from the general store. This, again, had to be managed from the government authorities who collected the rations during air drops. There was a point when the weather remained bad for months, and finally, when the plane dropped food items and kerosene tanks, Pul strongly put forward a case for larger portions of rations for the students. He had even had a mild altercation with Sinha at the time.
Despite several decades having passed, my memory of Pul in school is still fresh. On one occasion, he was about to lose a badminton match and was on the verge of tears. Victory for him, was closely linked to survival. His personality was one that carried an element of melancholy, tempered by a gravity of someone who has seen suffering. Additionally, he had a quality of reliability about him. Perhaps, it was these characteristics that helped him climb the ranks of student politics during his college years, when he was elected general secretary of the union. Unlike other student leaders, who resort to machismo, Pul’s personality was different; he carried an element of intellectual aura and brilliance.
In 1995, we heard about Pul defeating Khapriso Krong, the former education minister, in the election. Krong was the same minister who had received a welcome speech from Pul some 12 years earlier. Since then, Pul emerged as a winner in each election and worked in various capacities, as a minister in different departments – finance, tax and excise, and health and family welfare. One of his major contributions was his transformation of Hawai from a sleepy village with barely two or three shops, into a major administrative and business hub located along the last frontier of the Sino-Indian border. The region around Hawai was carved out as a separate district called Anjaw, with Hawai as its headquarters.
Meanwhile, Pul had lost touch with the headmaster who kept getting transferred from one remote village to the other, as he opposed the local leaders’ political activities in school. Ironically, most of them were his former students, some of whom had become MLAs. They were keen to exercise their influence in domains that were best left to teachers. In the late 1990s, Pul bumped into the headmaster at the Arunachal secretariat and immediately took him to his office. He called the education secretary and rebuked him for causing Sinha trouble.
Despite becoming a minister at the age of 27, Pul saw several ups and downs in his career. He was considered a popular leader, but also perceived as a threat by new chief ministers. The vagaries of Arunachal’s politics must have affected him. Several years later, in 2004, I began research on explosive detection technology with the department of engineering at Cambridge University. After the Central government refused to help me, I called up Pul, who immediately agreed to provide support. Unfortunately, the government collapsed the very next day!
Around a decade later, when he became chief minister, it was a great moment for us, the students of Hawai Middle School. It is a pity that the happiness was short lived and that he had to step down following the Supreme Court verdict. On August 9, when my wife told me of a former chief minister committing suicide, my heart sank. I was sure it was him. Even in school, he was prone to occasional emotional vulnerabilities. That he would take such an extreme step, however, was unimaginable.
During his formative years, Pul would reach school quite early. He would be softly admonished by the headmaster, “Kalikho, you have come early!”. The headmaster passed away on July 25, 2009 and seven years and 15 days later, perhaps, in some remote cosmic corner, Pul received the last, soft rebuke from his teacher, “Kalikho, you have come early again!”
Dhiraj Sinha was a schoolmate of Kalikho Pul at Hawai Middle School in the mid-80s. He is known in academic circles for his discovery of the Explicit Symmetry Breaking mechanism of radiation.