Sekhar Ramakrishnan

I knew Daya for nearly 40 years. Roped into IPANA by Nagu and Vinod in mid-1976, there was a lot of interaction, travel back and forth, phone calls, then emails (perhaps not) during IPANA days. Much less in the last 30 years, but we remained in touch. I felt very close to him, not just because he influenced my political thinking back in 1976 but much more because it seemed our views evolved very similarly. I like to think that we came to similar conclusions on many topics (relevance of semi-feudal/semi-colonial characterization, importance of communalism to us versus to the voting public, Obama as an exceptional public figure) because we were both objective and non dogmatic. But perhaps it was because of the ways to think about society and politics that I, like many others, learned from him. Or perhaps it was partly illusory, from his ability to stress what we had in common and work slowly to change me (or be changed) through friendly exchange, building on the shared analysis. 


As I write this, I am struck at how a certain comparability or equality comes across. As a matter of fact, that is not so – Daya remained orders of magnitude more engaged and more dedicated even at the end than I ever was. But he was able to interact with people, at whatever commitment level they had, in a way that made them feel equal. This was his genius. Now to elaborate.


Soon after I met Daya, it was clear that he was the ideological leader of IPANA. He was very influential, making use of similarly oriented people like Nagu and Vinod, in getting naifs like myself to accept the semi-feudal/semi-colonial characterization of Indian society, the importance of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, the three world theory including a critique of the Soviet Union as an equal of the US in threatening independence, etc. Within two years, differences emerged with some of us wanting to move away from certain positions. There was a quite stormy meeting in 1978. What is interesting in hindsight is that, while Daya was quite vehement in criticizing us and in leading the group to reject our view, he was entirely supportive of what we wanted to do in practice through our publication India Now. I never asked him to explain this seeming inconsistency. My thought, and this is why I mention it here at the risk of offending some who don’t want to dwell on the past, is that Daya had a keen sense of what was needed to hold the organization together. We had quite a few members whose self-sense of radicalism would have been lost by the changes our minority was pushing for, and it was important for Daya to hold the organization together, even if it meant rejecting something he thought was good. And it is unfortunately true that as IPANA became less “radical,” it declined and disappeared not long after, but that is a separate story where I have nothing to say.


My next major interaction with Daya was at his and Shree’s wedding. All four of us, including our then four-year-old daughter, went and had a very pleasant time. It was perhaps my first experience of how much more civilized Canadian bureaucracy is compared to the US. My brother had got married in City Hall in New York a short time before and that “ceremony” was quite awful – the official in charge had no interest in even learning how to say the names of the couple, let alone be decent otherwise. The Montreal wedding was a huge contrast. Family and friends could savor the occasion. We were very impressed.


My next memory is of Daya coming down for the funeral of our friend RP Singh in 1993. I have to say here that Daya was at all times willing to go anywhere at any time if it was going to do some good. So it was with RP’s funeral. There was no obligation for Daya to come. IPANA had been defunct for some time. But come Daya did, and gave a wonderful talk that was about RP but also about the burning issue of the day for Indians right after the demolition of Babri Masjid. Daya pointed out how, while RP’s home state Bihar may be economically backward, it was the one state where, thanks to the much-maligned Lalu, there were no communal riots during the entire BJP/RSS campaign prior to the demolition.


Daya was engaged not just in politics in the abstract. He also brought his academic expertise in pharmacology and clinical medicine to social issues. He went to Bhopal right after the disaster and undertook a survey of health consequences. He did a number of laboratory studies of the effects of methyl isocyanate (MIC). Daya didn’t just move on to something else after the disaster had faded from public memory. He stayed in touch with Bhopal, following up on his original survey to see what the long-term consequences of MIC exposure in childhood were on growth and other physiological parameters in adulthood. The only publication in my CV with social relevance is a short paper Daya managed to get published in JAMA on this topic; my colleague Steve and I did the statistical analysis.


Daya and I stayed in touch, primarily by email and occasionally over the phone. Another of Daya’s traits was his genuine interest in others’ welfare. He always asked about my family members – here and in India. It is a small thing but doesn’t come naturally to some of us with far less political commitment.


Our interactions were always very pleasant for the reasons I mention above – we seemed, at least to me, to be developing our social and political views in parallel. But it is also the case that, even when we had differences, as when I explained to him more than a year back about the legalities involved in disposing of parentally acquired land in India (I myself had learned from my lawyer niece and her lawyer husband that land my nephew’s grandfather bought could not be sold by my nephew’s father once my nephew had a child because a grandchild of the seller makes his father’s land ancestral, subsequently requiring consent from all heirs before any sale), it was possible for us to have a friendly discussion even while disagreeing.


Of course, I cannot end without mentioning cigarettes. They killed my father early, and now they have killed Daya. I remember being offended at my father’s memorial by some friends remembering fondly my father smoking while writing his polemics for the party paper. There is still too much smoking on the left.

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