Krishan Dev Sethi: Legacy of a secularist, humanist immortalized in memory forever

By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. Dated: 2/21/2021 12:37:52 PM


Mat sahl hameñ, jaano phirtā hai falak barsoñ
tab ḳhaak ke parde se, insān nikalte haiñ
-Mir Taqi Mir
Rare are humans who defy death by leaving behind a life fit for celebration, one that holds us in absolute awe, one that lifts up spirits and reposes faith in the incredibility of the greatness, strength and energy of humans to contribute to the betterment of humankind.
Krishan Dev Sethi, who passed away recently, was one of them. And, I was fortunate to have a long association with him – which was both personal and ideological – and began by default when I was a child. He was a close friend of my father and left an imprint on my impregnable mind with his simplicity, humility and his many anecdotes, some reserved for the younger audience. My earliest memory of him goes back to the twilight winters of, perhaps, latter half of seventies. A bold-check blanket draped around him, he was often to be found sitting in my father’s cabin at Kashmir Times – the room pregnant with smoke and men, his cigarette caught in his clenched fist, not between his fingers. He would bring his clenched hand closed to his mouth to take an occasional drag and then go on to talk in chaste Urdu. Acclaimed Dogri poet, senior editor in Kashmir Times and a leftist, Ved Pal Deep, who probably was the person who brought Sethi Saheb closer to my father, was usually in that room. Many others like Prof. M.L. Kapur, historian, Sessions Judge Sadiq Bhat and some others would occasionally join that company. In a different mood, I occasionally also saw Sethi saheb go for his morning walks, which he did regularly without a break and with utmost discipline, waving his stick in his hand.
It only gradually dawned upon me that Sethi saheb or Comrade Sethi, as he was called by his friends, admirers and acquaintances, was no ordinary man. As I grew up, I became aware of the many extraordinary people around me, thanks to my father, Ved Bhasin, who was exceptional too. These were people who had contributed to the society and were active participants as history was being made. He played a role in the Quit Kashmir movement, freedom struggle, in shaping Jammu and Kashmir’s destiny as member of the J&K Constituent Assembly and contributed to deepening the secular ethos. He was inspired by Communism and an avid follower of Marx.
Sethi saheb’s foray into politics began when he was still in school. The Quit Kashmir movement led by Raja Mohammed Akbar Khan in Mirpur made a huge impact on his mind and he began participating in the rallies, protests and activities and was jailed for two years, forcing him to drop out of school. In 1997, in an interview with me, Moti Ram Baigra, one of the four people who had been members of both the Indian and J&K Constituent assemblies, had spoken about his struggles during Quit Kashmir and recollected an anecdote. “People were being arrested, tortured and intimidated for participating in the movement. One day, I saw a young boy being taken to the police station in handcuffs. The boy walked nonchalantly, his head held high and a smile on his lips. That was Krishen Dev Sethi. I was impressed by his passion and conviction at such a tender age. Much later, we became friends.”
Once out of jail, Sethi saheb continued the political activity against the tyrannical rule of the monarchs. Injustices suffered by the people, disparities and forced taxations during the reign of Dogra rulers appalled him and inspired him to continue to wage a war against that.
He was hardly 19 years old when he left Mirpur in 1947 forced by the compelling circumstances of a communally surcharged atmosphere across Jammu division of the erstwhile state. He was still in jail in Mirpur when the sub-continent was partitioned and the flames of the communal violence had begun to reach Jammu province, of which Mirpur was also a part, in its aftermath. Amidst the heat of things, Sethi’s colleagues had broken the jail and freed him and other leaders. He walked to freedom only to realise that he was caught in a quagmire of hatred and violence around him. His Muslim colleagues and friends in Mirpur had requested him not to leave for Jammu and assured to give him and his family all kind of protection but though he had faith in them, the atmosphere and mischievous elements that thrived in it imbued an air of uncertainty and insecurity. He left under the troubling circumstances, like many others.
But Mirpur remained close to his heart. In fact, it ran through his veins, in the language he spoke in, in his attire and his way of life. Geographically distanced from Mirpur, he did not severe his links. In recent decades, whenever he traveled back, he was accorded a hero’s welcome. In 2000, when he went people took him in a procession through the streets of Mirpur amidst euphoric slogans.
The experiences of 1947 also strengthened his commitment to the ideals of secularism and justice and he continued to tirelessly become a crusader in pursuit of that. When he narrated some of the gory stories about how Hindus and Sikhs had to flee Mirpur and adjoining areas and Muslims from Jammu, one could sense a pain that pricked him deep within. Among this many stories, there is one that particularly stayed with me and resonated with my work – about a young Hindu woman who was kidnapped in Mirpur and subsequently her kidnapper married her and she had a son. She had reconciled to her fate and settled in her new home. “When both sides agreed to the exchange of the kidnapped women, she was forcibly brought back against her wishes and separated from her son. Her parents accepted her, kept her past a secret and married her off into a family outside the state. Years later, she came to me and though she had a new family, the memory of her first husband and son tormented her. She pleaded me to trace them. Her family did not know anything about her past,” Sethi saheb told me. “Nobody asked what the women wanted. I realized much later when this woman met me that some women had settled to their new lives and did not want to be uprooted again. I tried my best to use all my contacts and get information about her son but they remained untraced,” he added with remorse.
The gruesome tragedy of partition of the sub-continent and its spillover impact across the undivided Jammu region which was geographically, culturally and politically contiguous to that deeply saddened him but did not allow him to become bitter. Instead, he channelized his own tragedy into working for the many others being uprooted when he was appointed the Rehabilitation officer in Poonch.
As member of the Constituent Assembly, he played a role in creating a model of governance that was opposed to exploitative feudalism and to maintain the state’s distinct identity. This is what paved the way for Jammu and Kashmir’s landmark land reforms that gave land to the tiller in one go and waived off farmers debts. He would often talk about the debates that went in to the making of these reforms. “It was a major upheaval and would be resented by upper caste and upper class elites who managed a monopoly over land-holdings and exploited the poor peasants. But there was a vision to bring in an egalitarian society and also, there was political will in the leadership of that time which made it possible,” he would say. Through anecdotes, he would also point out to the significant, though marginal difference, the land reforms made to the lives of many Dalits.
On one occasion, he spoke about the J&K state flag and its origin. “After 1947, we were aware that symbols had their own significance and endorsed that distinct identity. At the same time, there were suspicions that New Delhi was toying with the idea of retaining a quasi-monarchy in J&K,” he had told me. In 1949, Sheikh Abdullah had sent a small J&K delegation, including Krishen Dev Sethi, for negotiations on the future relations between India and Kashmir with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and home minister, Sardar Patel. The Indian state was aware that the special status of Jammu and Kashmir had to be recognized for the region to be any part of India’s democratic future. There were five points that the team mooted – land reforms, debt waiver, ‘no’ to monarchy, separate currency and a flag. “They didn’t agree on the currency but we managed to get their consent on the other four,” Sethi saheb said. Thereafter, it was important that the flag represent our vision of opposing exploitative structures and standing with the working class,” he said. That is how the flag came into being – a white plough on a red background with three white vertical lines denoting the three regions of the state – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. After the reading down of Article 370, the flag lost its relevance. It was lowered for the last time on August 25, 2019. Before that it was mandatory to hoist the state flag along with the Indian national tricolour.
After August 5, 2019, when the process of erasure of that history of which he had been a part, began, he spoke about all these things again and again whenever I went to meet him (in his small, humble and welcoming house in Dalpatian). He was devastated by the turn of events and saw his life-time’s achievements being destroyed in one big jolt. His past was not a political career, it was passion for a vision in pursuit of his ideological beliefs of a just, egalitarian, secular and democratic society.
One thing great about him was that he had never made a capital of his political life. Whether he worked in tandem with those in power or in opposition to them – from Sheikh Abdullah to Ghulam Mohd Sadiq – he showed no desire to grab power. In fact, even while working with them, he continued to be critical of some of their policies which he believed were anti-people. He stood by his commitment, principles and ideals and that remained the purpose of his life. His leftist leanings brought him close to another known communist leader, Ram Piara Saraf, and together they created a huge space for left movement and working-class movement in Jammu region in the 60s. The two soon parted ways over some differences till they remained irreconcilable.
As a communist leader, giving strength to trade unions, and as the editor of his Urdu weekly ‘Jaddojaihad’, boldly critical of successive governments, he continued to play a role. He was outspoken and unsparing, he was sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the people around him and had the ability to grasp how the national and the international socio-economic and political trends continue to impact it. A great orator and a fearless writer, he recited poetry for everything he spoke. To him goes the credit for the deepening of my love for Urdu poetry and my realization that there was a couplet for every situation.
Sethi saheb remained a great votary for peace between India and Pakistan as well as resolution of Kashmir issue. For him peace and softer borders did not just have an emotive appeal. He was a visionary and saw the just and meaningful resolution of the Kashmir issue as vital to democracy, peace and progress in the entire South Asian region. Secularism, egalitarianism and justice, he believed were imperative ingredients of peace.
While his political compass was vast, his personal life was just as appealing – marked by simplicity, austerity, humility, honesty and an endearing childlike innocence. His conversations were enlightening and educational; and, his sense of humour par excellence. When he spoke to me or my colleagues, he was never patronizing but spoke like comrades, even listening to what we had to say. Despite some ideological differences, I rarely had arguments with him. Our conflicts were more focused on the personal – his smoking.
A heavy smoker, he lost his hearing to the pursuit and even though the hearing capabilities began to decrease, he refused to quit smoking. A regular visitor to our office in the evening, I would often stop him from smoking whenever I saw and he would plead like a child, “My family doesn’t let me smoke at home, and you stop me here….where do I go?” and then he would let out an innocent laugh. At other times, he would see me coming and turn to the wall with his cigarette, smoke hanging in the air as evidence of his ‘crime’.
A father figure, philosopher, a friend and comrade – as he was to me, it was great fortune to have known him so closely. At a time when he needed him the most, we lost in his death the last of the secular, progressive and liberal stalwarts of that era. But he leaves behind a life and ideas that many have faith in. One can go on eulogizing his life and singing paeans in praise. However, the real tribute would come when some of us can have the courage to stand by the principles and commitment of the liberal values he espoused. Even a meagre percentage of what he did in his exemplary life would be significant.
As I look back on his life and my association with him, what strikes me most is that even as he was dismayed, his spirit didn’t retire. He lived till the end and lives in memory and hearts beyond that.



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