Vol – XLIX No. 23, June 07, 2014 | Mihir Desai

Scientific Forever

So who was Mukul Sinha? In recent years, of course, he had become prominent as one of the most vocal and ardent critics of Narendra Modi, a sane and secular voice amongst the cacophony created by Hindutva supporters. He was a man not just of words but of action. A large number of us know Mukul as a Modi baiter but Mukul was much more than that. His death would have been mourned as intensely even if Modi had not existed.

Mukul was a Bengali. His father worked with the Indian Railways and the family moved every few years. Mukul completed his Bachelor’s degree in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh. He was attracted to physics, observing “It is a logical, objective discipline. It was the 1960s and we had great hope that science would take India forward.” He did his Masters from IIT Kharagpur and then started on his PhD in physics at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) at Ahmedabad as a research scholar. It was here that he met the 22 year old Nirjhari, who was working as a research assistant. They fell in love and got married.

Nirjhari came from a conservative wealthy Jain Gujarati family and predictably enough there were objections, but the families reconciled themselves to the marriage. At the memorial meeting a large number of Nirjhari’s family members were present and one of them spoke vividly about their love for Mukul. It needs to be emphasised that Mukul would not have been what he was without Nirjhari’s support. She stood by him through thick and thin, and participated in organisational activities and struggles. Without her the decoding of telephone records after the Gujarat carnage would not have been possible.

In 1979, Mukul completed his PhD and accepted a research position in PRL. While in subsequent years he gave up science as a career, the scientist in him never died. Two instances come to mind. The first was soon after the massive earthquake which shook north Gujarat in 2001 causing widespread destruction in Kutch. Using his scientific knowledge, Mukul came to the conclusion that the epicenter of the earthquake was different from the one claimed by the Gujarat government. He filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court and the state had to accept that Mukul’s analysis was correct. When I asked Mukul about the significance of this, he pointed out that for him it was not just a case of scientific accuracy but the fact that the rehabilitation measures, especially rehousing, etc, depended a lot on where the epicenter was. Similarly, following the burning of the railway coach in Godhra in 2002, Mukul spent considerable amount of time in scientifically establishing that, contrary to the claims of the investigating agencies, the petrol could not have been poured from outside the coach. I remember him making a power point presentation, with detailed photographs on the coach burning at various meetings, discrediting the theory that it was a well planned conspiracy to burn the train.

A Trade Unionist Is Born

In 1979, after he accepted the research position in PRL, his life underwent a dramatic change. As he said in an interview “I will never forget the date: 13 September 1979. One hundred and thirty three people were laid off from the university.” Sinha formed a labour union and began fighting for the workers’ rights. A few months later, Sinha’s services were terminated. He fought the termination unsuccessfully right up to the Supreme Court but this sowed the seeds of his trade union, legal and political career.

During this period he also organised a federation of various employees of educational and research institutes all over India and formed the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions. Finding himself ill-equipped to deal with the various legal issues which the workers faced, he enrolled for a law course and took his law degree in 1989. Realising that the mandate of a trade union was limited, he formed the Jan Sangharsh Manch to deal with the human rights issues of marginalised communities in 1990. Mukul and his trade unions were involved in organising a number of workers in Gujarat including bus drivers, employees of Reliance, the Gujarat Steel Tubes and various pharmaceutical companies and other establishments.

In the 1990s, when it was hazardous for anyone in Gujarat to criticise the Narmada project (and this fanaticism-tainted situation was even before Modi came to power), Mukul stood with the Narmada oustees and was a vocal critique of the kind of development taking place in Gujarat.

Skilled Cross-examiner

Mukul’s legal skills were always at the service of the suffering masses. Apart from the victims of the 2002 riots and various fake encounters, Mukul also handled large number of labour cases. He represented thousands of slum dwellers in courts against eviction drives. He also filed public interest litigations (PILs) in matters concerning environment, including a major case against Reliance. He was known for his boldness in the courts and respected for his legal acumen.

In 2012 after the Supreme Court took action concerning fake encounters in Manipur, Mukul rushed to Manipur to represent the victims in the enquiry. A large amount of credit for the report that proved the encounters to be fake goes to Mukul’s skills as a cross-examiner.

Undiminished Zeal

Mukul’s life was not a mere emotional response to the situation around him. He was an avowed Marxist and a critique of neo-liberal economics. As he wrote in an article,

Globalisation is gobbling up labour laws and workers’ rights besides resources – land, water, mines and minerals. Courts are setting new precedents diluting the Constitution and thereby putting both democracy and people at a grave risk. Yet the courts are content with the applause they get from mighty corporations.

This led him to ultimately start a political organisation called the New Socialist Movement.

The Gujarat carnage of 2002 brought out the combative best in Mukul. One should bear in mind that it was after this carnage that Mukul suffered a major heart attack and Nirjhari was detected with cancer. Despite these personal challenges Mukul fought with a lot of zeal. To begin with Mukul devoted a large part of his energies in representing the victims, day after day, month after month and year after year before the Nanavati Shah Commission, appointed to probe the 2002 carnage. He realised that the Commission was not very responsive to the victims and that he would have to battle his way through. He was not deterred by the fact that the end result may not reflect the evidence and left no stone unturned in grilling the government officials. On three occasions he unsuccessfully tried to get the commission to summon the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Had that been done, I have no doubt that Mukul would have exposed the conspiracy. Nonetheless he was instrumental in getting Rahul Sharma to bring the telephone records of the carnage period and, with substantial help from Nirjhari, these records were decoded minutely which ultimately contributed to Maya Kodnani’s conviction.

Opening another front against the Modi government’s functioning he took up the encounter cases of Sadiq Jamal, Ishrat Jahan, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsi Prajapati which landed several Gujarat police officers in jail and forced the resignation of the then home minister Amit Shah as he had himself been arrested for the murder of Sohrabuddin Sheikh.

In 2007, Mukul and the trade unions associated with him decided to affiliate with the Trade Union Centre of India (TUCI). In 2010, he was elected president of the TUCI at its 6th conference in Kanpur and was re-elected to the post in the 7th conference in Kolkata in 2012 and continued holding the post until his death. The Truth of Gujarat, a website launched by Mukul and colleagues contributed much to deconstructing the media hype and propaganda around Gujarat’s development and Narendra Modi. His son Pratik has been instrumental in keeping this website alive and updated. As he said in an interview,

What both 1992 and 2002 did was to fool people into believing that the communal divide is greater than the class divide. As soon as you convince a society that Muslims or whatever group is the problem, you have tricked them into overlooking the real problems like labour laws, corruption, housing shortages, and poor infrastructure.

Mukul had an excellent sense of humour. No matter what the adversity, I have never met him without a smile on his face. Another important contribution was his ability at team building.

Mukul suffered from lung cancer which was detected about eight months ago but it did not affect his devotion to the cause of justice. Just two days before he died (12 May) I got a call from him. He wanted to discuss the so-called clean chit issued to Amit Shah by the Central Bureau of Investigation and how it could be countered in court. By this time the doctors had already told him that no further treatment was possible and he was aware that his time was up.

Perhaps it was good that he died before the election results were declared. But I am sure had he survived, he would have told me with a smile “Theek hai. Abhi to ladai shuru hui hai.” (It is ok. The battle has just begun.) I have lost a friend but of more significance is the fact that the civil society in Gujarat and India has lost one of its most combative heroes.