Dolores Chew


It’s hard to write this, because it means accepting the fact that Daya is no longer around.  Though for the last many years Daya no longer lived in Montreal, he was a constant presence for me.  Through email enquiries about INSAF Bulletin, or CERAS, suggestions about CERAS statements — he was there.  While Daya was an intensely political person, and many of us remember him as such, for me, the personal is very closely intertwined with the political.


I first met Daya in 1976.  I had arrived in Montreal the year before, having left India just before Indira Gandhi declared a state of National Emergency.  This turn of events had shocked me, not because I was politically aware, but because I had grown up in the first post-colonial generations and believed that after hard-won independence, India was a democracy.  In Montreal, in the fall of 1975 I read in the McGill Daily about the screening of a film that had a connection to the anti-Indira movement, “Waves of Revolution”, made by Anand Patwardhan, who at that time was a student at the university.  I went to see the film.   At the screening we were invited to leave our contact information if we wanted to be informed of future events.  I did.  A good part of a year went by, when I received a phone call from Anand. There was to be a demonstration in Ottawa on the first anniversary of the declaration of the Emergency and would I be interested in joining. I took a bit of convincing. I’d never been on a demo before; after a year, perhaps some things in India were actually better than they had been, trains were running on time, etc.  “That’s what Mussolini said”, he shot back.


I did make that trip to Ottawa.  And I met Daya and members of IPANA (Indian People’s Association in North America), that included his son Rahul and daughter Roli.  On our return to Montreal I began to spend more time with them and other IPANA members.  I joined IPANA.  Daya’s and Krishna’s and Shree’s and Said’s homes were the nucleus of IPANA in Montreal, and I spent a lot of time there.   I loved the warmth, hospitality, conviviality, the sense of home away from home.  My sister, Jennifer and her young daughter, Samantha also participated in IPANA events.


We sported large buttons that read “Unite to Defeat Fascist Dictatorship in India”.  I went with folk from Montreal to the IPANA convention in Vancouver in 1976, and met members from other parts of the USA and Canada.  The conference culminated in a demonstration downtown on Indian Independence Day, 15th August, against the Indian government.


Apart from Indian politics, in Montreal and Canada, IPANA also worked with other organizations.  CAPT (Comité anti-impérialiste des peoples de tiers-monde) was one of them.  We also joined Iranian students in their protests against the Shah.  We participated in antiracist struggles, joining IPANA members in Toronto against the racist attacks by the state in the 1970s. That period also saw the emergence of large Marxist-Leninist formations in Montreal and IPANA was often invited to their events and rallies.  When Mao Zedong died, I drove with Daya and other IPANA members from Montreal to Ottawa, to the Chinese Embassy to sign the condolence book.


IPANA published a journal called New India Bulletin.  In those days before personal computers everything had to be typed.  Cut and paste meant exactly and painstakingly that.  Larger headings were inserted using Letraset.  Pictures were photocopied and glued on.  Since all of us had day jobs this work was usually done at night.  Long exhausting nights in the basements of IPANA homes, energized with lively discussions and conversation.  I was always one of the first to nod off.  But those times were also exhilarating and satisfying because we felt we were making a difference.  We all supported each other.  Daya had great faith in people and our abilities.  One day he asked me to look into distributing New India Bulletin in a local bookshop.  I paused, not quite sure how I would go about this.  Daya simply said, with great confidence, “You just do it.”  He wasn’t ordering me.  He was telling me that all I had to do was to go ahead and everything would fall into place.


I went back to school full-time as an undergraduate at Concordia University.  At that time there were so-called ‘ethnic’ associations, among the student body.  There had been one for Pakistani students, but nothing for other students from South Asia.   I got together with a couple of other students I met at the university, from India and Pakistan and we launched an association for South Asia.  Daya was very encouraging in this initiative.  Most of the ‘ethnic’ associations used their resources to have cultural exhibitions – food, music, images of historic sites and national monuments.  We tried to move beyond.  In fact one of my first lessons in nationalist history was when I read the posters the Pakistani students had made, where they described Aurangzeb as the greatest Mughal.  In school in India, that place had been reserved for Akbar, while Aurangzeb was painted as a religious bigot!


In 1977, Daya gave a job offer in his lab to a Rana Bose, for whom it would have been unsafe to return to India at that time, after completion of his studies in the USA.  Hari Sharma, also a founding member of IPANA like Daya, who knew Rana, had written asking Daya if he could help out and Daya offered Rana a job in his lab at McGill.  Soon after Rana came to Montreal we started dating and then moved in together.  A year later we married.  Our wedding dinner was in Daya’s home.


Those early years in IPANA the discourse and the articles written and published were filled with vehement discussions and debates in which Daya was a key person, about Three World Theory, Two Line Struggle, whether India was semi-feudal and semi-capitalist.  We had study circles.  In Daya’s home there was Peking Review and issues of Economic and Political Weekly.  There would be discussions that continued on through the night.  But this was all new to me; most of it didn’t interest me very much and was marginal to what I wanted to do, support common people in India for justice and equality.  However, I did learn more about this because of my participation in IPANA.  I was moved when I learned about the realities of the lives of Dalits and for the first time about the massacre in Kilvenmani in 1968, or the Bhagalpur blindings in 1980.  But in the late 1970s and early 1980s when in India and other parts of the world there was a resurgence of the women’s movement I got drawn in.  The Mathura rape case had galvanized the movement in India.  Manushi began publishing.  Women in IPANA formed a women’s caucus.  This was something that interested me.  I had never given much thought to ‘feminism’, though living my life based on the principle of absolute equality between men and women.   But now there was language to describe it.  During this period there were some tensions between Daya and me.   Over time things got resolved and in 1981 some of us in IPANA, Montreal, along with other women of South Asian origin in Montreal, founded the South Asian Women’s Community Centre (SAWCC), a testimony not just to our determination and resolve, but also to the support we received from our male comrades, such as Daya, Rana and Rahul.   For the thirty-four years that SAWCC has been around in Montreal, Daya, who became an associate life-time member has been one of its most steadfast supporters.


Over the years Daya founded, built, sustained and supported many organizations.   With the resurgence of religious nationalism in India,  Daya was elemental in forming CERAS in Montreal in the early 1990s.  He steered it for many years, till he left for Newfoundland.  CERAS succeeded in bringing focus in Montreal to issues of peace, secularism and democratic development in South Asia.  And Daya was greatly respected by many South Asians in Montreal – Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Nepali — for what he did in this regard.   Seeing the need to highlight the progressive culture of South Asia, Kabir Cultural Centre was launched, as a sister organization of CERAS.


Daya followed my development and progress, academically and personally.  He encouraged me.  He had great faith in my abilities.  He celebrated the birth of my children, Siraj and Durga. He was concerned when I decided to return to India to do my Ph.D.  He was saddened when Rana and I separated.  Years later, when I met my current husband, Mritiunjoy Mohanty, Daya received him warmly, with great affection and they shared many discussions.  When we married, Daya and Shree had a celebratory dinner at their home for us with friends and family.


Neither his politics nor his activism was from the armchair.  Daya rolled up his sleeves and took on whatever the task at hand may be.  Before an event, he would get incredibly nervous, glancing at the time and counting how many people had shown up thus far.  He was there to schlep, prep for an event and clean up after.  And over the years, in the many organizations we were part of, Daya would walk through the venue after the program had ended, with garbage bag in hand, cleaning up.  We would joke that this was to always be our lot.

When I think of Daya I remember a very dear friend, at times almost father-like, a man of great conviction and passion, with a radiant smile, very astute, a very political person (“politics in command”), incisive, brilliant in his own academic field and everything he did; a very kind and generous man, who always struggled against injustice and for equality for humanity.  Daya was also a towering figure in the South Asian diaspora, especially for progressive forces here and in the sub-continent.   We mourn his passing and will surely miss not having his counsel in these dark days — in India of the Modi government; and huge challenges in other parts of South Asia and the world.  But as Brecht wrote, “In the dark times, Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”  Daya always kept the song going.  Daya Varma, close friend, mentor and comrade. May those of us who survive you, continue your work and contribute to making India, South Asia and the world the place you wanted it to be.  Inquilab Zindabad!   

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