Gandhi had inspired him and his first tryst with the Mahatma’s way was when his mother discriminated against his dalit friend in serving tea
An incident in his childhood moved him so much that he took up solace in the Gandhian philosophy. A young engineering and IAS aspirant returned to his home in Lucknow from his village in Hardoi. Tired after travel, he asked his mother to prepare tea for him and his friend, a dalit. The moment his mother learnt that the second cup of tea was for a dalit, she served tea to him in a different cup that had been kept for lower castes. This made the young man so furious that he left his home in protest against the subjugation, anti-low caste mindset and ill-treatment of his friend.
Rebellion was kicking in him since childhood. Untouchability, atrocities on dalits and women, poverty, superstition, etc., reverberated in his mind so much that the young man decided to fight against social evils. One day, he found Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography “An Experiment with Truth”. And he made learning from the book his weapon to bring justice to the poor, downtrodden and women.
Clad in uniorned khadi kurta and pyjama and a pair of ordinary Hawaii slippers, Sandeep Pandey (51), the Magsaysay awardee, never looked back. He made Gandhian philosophy the mission of his life to work for the dalits’ uplift, women’s empowerment, education of poor children and other social evils plaguing the society in rural Uttar Pradesh.
“First I made education the tool to fight against these evils but soon realised that the rural masses, who have difficulty in arranging even two meals a day, are not much interested. This realisation came to me when I was a faculty member at IIT, Kanpur, where we used to run a school for poor children of labours and had formed a cooperative of labours to check contractors exploiting them,” reveals Pandey.
Impressed by Gandhian Baba Amte, Sandeep shelved his suit and tie to wear a Khadi vest and half pant inthe campus and classrooms, much to the discomfiture of prestigious IIT faculty. He then annoyed the faculty further by introducing a revolutionary evaluation system under which students were free to consult books, references to answer their test papers. “The job of a teacher does not end in taking exams and grading but making the student to understand the subject thoroughly,” says he. In Kanpur, he organised many rescue and relief operations during riots in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. The small IITian group also staged many street-corner plays on the request of the district administration to restore peace and communal harmony in riot-hit Kanpur.
The fight with the faculty members went on for about six months and finally he was asked to quit. Back home, he was forced by his parents to prepare for civil services, but Gandhian principles had made an indomitable imprint on this rebel mind. To buy time, he went to the US for higher studies and Ph.D in control theory. In Berkeley too, his Satyagrah against US policies and attack on Iraq continued. There he had a chance to join a group of Indians called Asha Parivar. “Since the US administration was using most of our research work for strengthening their defence and producing weapons for destruction, I decided to quit and came back to my village in Hardoi where I set up Asha Ashram in village Laalpur to devote my life for poor, dalits and socially backwards on a land donated by one of my old time friends.”
Along with his IIT and Berkley friends, he re-established Asha Parivar back home to begin a chain of schools for the poor and downtrodden. While social audits and RTI were yet to arrive, he used provisions of Pachayati Raj Act to fight for the rights of villagers. “We would do our own social audits by collecting papers and then hold meetings in the presence of a gun-toting army of influential Pradhans to expose them and get justice to dalits, women, poor by empowering them about their democratic rights,” points he. The impact was so high that soon people in about 30 villages around Hardoi and Sitapur districts stood up to fight for their rights against the corrupt administration, high and mighty.
Pandey received so many life threats, attacked by of Pradhans but it did not deter this Gandhian to shelve Babu’s philosophy of working for strengthening democracy at grass-root level and bring the rural masses to the mainstream.
Pandey took Pokhran to Sarnath peace march. The 88-day 1500 kms long Satyagrah march was disrupted at many places by RSS and BJP in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Ideological differences apart, the same RSS and BJP men would arrange his stay and food during this march during the march.
He also jumped into Narmada Bachao Abhyian to support Medha Patkar. There he met Medha’s favourite associate Arundhati Dhuru. He met Arundhati in jail where he wrote a poem in praise of her social works. Soon they came close and Pandey’s parents forced him to marry her since he had announced to remain single to complete his Gandhian mission.
He made ahimsa (non-violence) and Satygraha his weapons to fight against injustice and lives a simple life for social cause. “I never drink milk as I feel it is meant for her calfs,” he reveals. He was awarded Ramon Magsasay Award, often termed as Asian Nobel prize, in 2002 in the emergent leadership category.
To broker deadlock, Pandey also took out a peace march from Delhi to Multan in 2005 and launched a massive signature campaign to bring the two warring countries across the table. Among his charter of demand was free visa and open border between the two countries. “A Sikh illiterate youth once told me during the peace mission that had he made this last charter of demand as the first, this mission would have turned table on statesmen of the two countries due to social pressure,” confides he. The peace could be brokered between the two countries once people of both countries strengthen social bonding else stakeholders involved in the animosity have covert agenda to pursue.
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