man who saw tomorrow
Sanjoy Ghose was
a dogged catalyst of change. And he paid the ultimate price for it
Sanjoy Ghose vanished
on July 4, 1997. He was abducted by the ulfa because of his grassroots
work in the largest river island in the world, Majuli, Assam. Last December,
he would have turned 45.
Crusader: Sanjoy Ghose
police offered him
protection but Sanjoy
refused, saying people
were his best protection.
Soon after, he was
abducted. He vanished
In 37 years he had
packed more into life than most people do in a hundred years or more.
Says RN Haldipur, former director of Institute of Rural Management (irma),
Anand, “Sanjoy was a positive and tenacious votary who functioned
with single-minded purpose. Instead of joining the corporate sector, he
took the hard path, full of difficulties and austerity. To him work was
soul-satisfying worship. Transparent in his dealings, he was a man of
Sanjoy immersed himself
in the lives of ordinary people. He observed, understood and wrote their
stories, crafted like gems set in rustic metal.
He studied Rural Development
at Elphinstone College, Bombay, and Rural Management at irma. He had worked
in a health programme in Kheda, Gujarat, then moved to Bikaner, Rajasthan,
to set up a primary health programme with urmul Trust. Sumita —
his wife and comrade — recalls: “Starting from scratch in
the middle of the desert, in a semi-feudal society, learning a new language,
living in a different cultural milieu, where women were in purdah, where
you were identified by your caste, was like having to start a new life
almost… It was a period of growing up, when we realised that any
change, however seemingly innocuous, is political.”
They learnt about
the “systematic subversion of the rights of poor people”.
urmul ’s work expanded to include weavers, peasants, migrant labour,
midwives, girls’ education, water, food security, ecology and local
governance. The group gradually broke new ground, it made a perceptible
difference in the life and times of many people and villages in Rajasthan.
And its impact can be seen till this day, as locals have taken over the
trust, dalits run independent craft institutions, schools and panchayats,
drought relief funds are collectively organised and the dairy movement
flourishes across Bikaner and beyond.
Sanjoy and Sumita
spent 10 years living and working from the rural campus at Lunkaransar,
near Bikaner. This was where their two children were born and grew up.
When handing over
the reins of the organisation in 1994, Sanjoy was aware that this was
a step to transfer leadership and decision-making power to a local leadership.
He spoke of urmul having provided him with roots, the lack of which earlier
disturbed him. He had experienced “…the quiet confidence of
the weavers emerging suddenly; the euphoria of the Nahar Yatra (canal
yatra), hundreds joining in song and walking together; the deep spiritual
understanding about the impermanence of life….”
In Phalodi, a landmark
of the urmul movement, the beginning of Sanjoy’s dream, the weavers
have consolidated the group. At Chattergarh, the priority was on pastoralism
and animal husbandry. The Lunkaransar centre emphasised fodder, water
and food security. The Nagaur group worked with migrant labour, to stem
the tide by generating resources closer home. In Bajju, the focus has
been on pre-schooling and primary education.
Sanjoy left Rajasthan
for the Northeast to yet again start his “life’s work”.
En route he set up Charkha in New Delhi — a developmental communication
network offering grassroots activists and ordinary people in remote areas
a space to write about their own lives, dreams and struggles. These writings
were fielded out to various publications in English, Hindi and Urdu, so
as to reach a wide readership. This was a unique movement in alternative
After moving to Majuli
in April 1996, Sanjoy and his colleagues in avard-ne lived for a while
with different local families. He spent a fortnight with Umaram Das or
Kokai’s family in village Natun Kamlabari. He deeply felt the beauty
of the place and the skills of people; and he knew there were harsher
realities out there: “…there is another, more poignant side
to this near ethereal beauty and silence. You can feel it in the people,
catch a hint of tension in their conversation. Anando Hazarika, professor
of geography at the college in Kamlabari, says that the island has shrunk
by over 500 sq km in the last 20 years, as the Brahmaputra breaks against
the shores and inexorably, but quickly, swallows the land.”
The group mobilised
people to build embankments: local people contributed 30,000 person-days
of labour to protect an experimental stretch of 1.7 km of the island’s
banks. In doing so, they displeased a powerful contractor lobby that provided
patronage to ulfa .
When posters came
up asking avard-ne to leave Assam, many locals participated in a public
meeting in solidarity with the constructive work being done. This was
on June 1, 1997. The group had already engaged in flood relief and malaria
prevention, design and production of weaving and bamboo crafts; it had
also set up village libraries.
The police offered
him protection but Sanjoy refused, saying people were his protection.
Soon after, he was abducted. Sanjoy vanished.