What happens when intelligence and determination meet compassion; especially in a developing country? It is bound to become a force of change; a change that is good for most and inspires almost everyone.
Let me tell you a story of an extremely capable, successful and respected son, who came back to his mother. Only in this case, he had never been “prodigal”, yet his alma mater is trying to purge him.
According to one interview of IIT BHU itself, Dr. Sandeep Pandey is one of its most illustrious alumnus. PhD from one of the best Mechanical Engineering institutes in the world, UCB, and the recipient of the first Ramon Magsaysay award for Emergent leadership.
He is an intellectual, highly pedigreed, working at grassroots, which is very rare. After his doctorate, he could have chosen to stay in the USA, the land of opportunities, and make his life as comfortable as can be. However, he chose to come back to India and work for the poor. On one hand, he found the Asha trust for education, one of the most respected NGOs of Asia, while on the other he taught as IIT Kanpur. For most people, even pedigreed, this would be enough for one lifetime, especially considering Asha is a totally volunteer-run action group focusing on basic education and highly respected worldwide.
Dr. Pandey, on the other hand, decided to delve into other pro-poor activities at the grassroots level, mostly in UP. He has worked for community ownership in Ballia and helped facilitate protests against water depletion by coke bottling plant in Mehandiganj. Most importantly, he has been a reputed RTI activist, working mostly in Hardoi district, and inspiring many to take the benefits of RTI to other regions of India. It requires courage, besides selflessness, to stay and initiate such activities in one of the most dangerous regions of India.
He leads National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), the largest network of grassroots people’s movements nationally, which counts Baba Amte also as one of the leaders. He has served as an adviser to the Indian government’s Central Advisory Board for Education (CABE). He has led peace marches from India to Pakistan, where his team initiated discussions in villages on issues related to peace between the neighboring countries. In 2002, he marched from Chitrakoot to Ayodhya in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage, to spread the message that the common citizen is religious but not communal.
His objective has been to empower the marginalized so that the poor can have a voice. His actions, ranging from education to grassroots democracy and also peace to promoting local ownership of resources – are all guided by that basic philosophy. He is not a nationalist but a Universalist, like Tagore. He is a humanitarian, working for the poor and marginalized, like Gandhi. He is a simpleton and a Karma Yogi, reminds us of Swami Vivekananda.
I met him at IIM Lucknow, at a gathering remembering Manjunath Shanmugam, the slain crusader of honesty and integrity. A brief discussion with Dr. Pandey inspired me to work for RTI in Bihar.
He was ready to train me on the job for a few weeks. He ingrained in me the importance of work at the grassroots. A young IIT-IIM graduate, with a dream to work in rural India, especially for community empowerment, I saw in him my ideal future. I wanted to do for Bihar as much as he had done in UP. Today if I am working to eradicate illiteracy, his words have played a significant role in it.
It is unfortunate that IIT BHU has taken a politically motivated decision to fire him on flimsy grounds and false allegations. Dr. Pandey is qualified enough to get a teaching job at any Engineering college of the world. University of California, Berkeley, his alma mater, is the Kashi of Mechanical Engineering. Board of Directors, probably with RSS backing, have banned him from teaching, labelling a peace-loving man a Naxalite. It is like the proverbial spitting on the moon. His absence would be the loss of IIT BHU and its community, and not Dr. Pandey’s.
Masses are rising in Dr. Pandey’s support. Yet it is unfortunate that we try to humiliate and denigrate such mass leaders and intelligent activists, who don’t bow to the political powers. India is culturally rich, economically developing, yet socially a laggard, currently. The government is not capable and resourced enough to empower all marginalized. We have a vacuum that only determined and capable social activists can fill. Let us give them the required space to breathe and grow. Else, we would fail the guiding principles of “equality for all” in our much revered nation.
Let me end with a small story. A disciple of a spiritual guru once wondered and asked him, “How come you advice the same path to everyone around, yet only a few actually understand your words?” The guru gave him a large gem stone and asked him to go to the market to get an estimate of its worth. While an old vegetable vendor agreed to offer two kilos of carrots for it, a jeweler agreed to a gold ring. The king of the region, seeing such a large gemstone, agreed to part with half his treasury for it. When the disciple came back, his guru cleared his doubts, “This is the Philosopher’s stone. It is invaluable. We all estimated its worth according to our own wisdom.”
Let us be wise. Let us understand the worth of a gem like Dr. Sandeep Pandey. Let such gems in the society serve us without undue interference from our political masters. Else, our future generations might never be able to look forward to the next Gandhi and Vivekananda.
[Mohan Prasad is an alumnus of IIT Delhi (2008) and IIM Lucknow (2010). He is author of of book “Legacy”.]