Neelabh Mishra: Notes from a life well lived 

Kavita Srivastava, rights activist and his partner, talks about the ease with which National Herald ­Editor-in-Chief Neelabh Mishra straddled the worlds of journalism, literature and activism

NH Photo by Pramod Pushkarna
NH Photo by Pramod Pushkarna

Kavita Srivastava

Neelabh’s departure from this world never ever came into our minds, despite the fact that he went five times into the hospital since August. Neelabh and I were both looking forward to his recovery, the treatment being a liver transplant, in order to become a new insaan as he would tell friends.

Yes, the worry was more about the transplant being successful, but not that he would go away without giving himself a chance. We thought that we had all the time in the world. The last few words that I had with him, were hardly a parting. He wanted to get out of the ICU but the doctors thought that he was still very vulnerable; they had put him in the pre-operative room of the Apollo Chennai CCU which was in the front part of the ICU, away from the critical patients. He had told the doctors earlier that the ICU was a faceless place and he did not want to be there. The doctors themselves agreed with him and said that this aspect about the ICU was a global problem and there was no solution as yet. So when he urged on the evenings of February 15, 16 that he be brought out of the pre-operative into a private room or we go back home, I had to say no, with all kinds of excuses, promising him that the next day we would try getting him out. When he told me that I should not let the doctors manipulate me, I tried convincing him otherwise. So, the February 16 evening was, of course, routine and was also painful for me as I was denying him his freedom from the ICU. That evening, apart from asking the brief of that day, which included all the khabar related to hospital bills, politics, search for the live donor as a standby and other sundry details, he also asked for his mobile and went through it, once at 6.30 pm and the second time at 9.30/ 10pm. I asked him whether he wanted to reply to any of the messages, I could help doing the typing, he replied “later”. During the second meeting that night, the nurses were restless that I was meeting him outside the scheduled time and that he had to have his juice, go to the bathroom, so they requested me to leave. He also told me that I could go as he wished to sleep and that was the last I met him where we both communicated.

On the February 17, 2018, it seems he talked at 2 am to the doctor, but by 4 am, when we got a call, we were told that the saturation of oxygen in his blood was low and that they needed me to come immediately. By the time we reached, he had been moved back into the ICU, he had been put on the ventilator, facilitating his breathing. He was there, he seemed to see us, the eyes were moving left and right, there was cognition, was responding to command, he held my hand. He was shaking his legs, when Karen my friend told him to keep walking. But the next two days, his eyes got more sluggish, he was also headed for multi-organ failure, despite medicine and machine connecting him through tubes, to bring normalcy to his physiology but 96 hours later we were told that his brain had damaged severely and that now it was a matter of time. On the morning of February 24, he breathed his last on his own.

He was cremated on February 24 in an electric crematorium, no rituals, no pundits; only friends and family offering him songs, poetry and slogans, in Hindi, English and Tamil encircled his mortal remains till the last. When the first rays of the sun hit the sea at Elliot’s beach the next day, we immersed his ashes and he merged with the water, air, sand, sunshine and the sky. How ironical he went to Apollo Chennai to be a recipient of an organ, but ended up donating his own cornea to four people. Ironical that he and I went together sitting side by side on February 4, 2018, watching the Anarkali of Arrah on the flight from Delhi to Chennai, but I came back on February 26, 2018, with a framed photo of his beside me. It was as if he was liberating me from this relationship so that I could become my own anchor again, almost as if he was telling me why the sadness, are you not pleased that you have one task less, one relationship less to work on. Move on, that was his motto, Charaiyaveti, keep walking, chalte raho….. (“Yug yug Dhavit Yatri”; Outlook Hindi, 1-15 January, 2016).

Neelabh came to Jaipur from Patna, from the world of letters, from the world of literature, from the world of human rights and the world of Gandhi, JP and left radical movements.Neelabh’s continued association with movements were endless

The year was 1995. The place was Jaipur. We were no teeny boppers when we met. By 1996, we were in a relationship. Neelabh was 36 and I was 32. At the core was the politics we shared. We were both deeply involved with people. Our idioms and modes were different. He was a people’s journalist and I was an activist.

He and I were both deeply rooted in feminism. No institutional arrangement of togetherness was acceptable. Marriage was an antiquated structure. So, when we decided to be together, Neelabh told me the choice was mine, marriage or living in, as either way, the consequences of the choice would impact our genders differently. We decided to “live in sin”, right there in my office in the house of my parents or his house 500 metres away. Even before Neelabh came into my life, my personal space, with the support of my family and friends, had already begun to be carved out as a space from where movements, were being coordinated, where people from all over Rajasthan would come and get to use the computer, the printer, the fax, the phone, be given food and a bed, but now our collective personal space had become even more attractive as people now started coming to consult Neelabh, whether it be just a letter to a department or a pamphlet to be written or it was related to taking strategic decisions. Our home was open for runaway girls, women and couples, an adda for friends, particularly journalists, and he was mentoring young men and women who did not know what to do with their lives.

Neelabh came to Jaipur from Patna, from the world of letters, from the world of literature, from the world of human rights and the world of Gandhi, JP and left radical movements. Neelabh stayed in Jaipur from 1995 to 2003.

He had shared his love for poetry and literature and frequently read his unpublished poems, that was part of our very intimate moments too, so when I asked him as to why he did not join the sahitya group in Jaipur he said that he had had enough of that world in Patna and was still recovering from heights of creativity and the depths of hypocrisy that that world carried with it. So, in Rajasthan it was not to be them, and we were so lucky to have him.

Through those years, Neelabh, at 5 pm, used to get the writers itch. He, initially, would travel to the Central Telegraph Office to send his despatches, but later my workspace become increasingly his own. The days were of the Mahila Atyachar Virodhi Jan Andolan, of combating serious cases of violence against women, of establishing the Right to Information movement through long dharnas along with the public hearings, which was the collective assertion of the Right to Information, drafting the legislations on it, of reviving the PUCL in the state of Rajasthan, opposing the jingoism around the nuclear explosion and the militarisation of the Rajasthan border, defeating the BJP in the 1998 elections, setting up of human rights Institutions like the State Women’s Commission and the Human Rights Commission, bringing centre stage atrocities against Dalits, which was not even recognised, combating the attempts of the communalisation of the state, the trishul distribution in Rajasthan, the murder of Graham Staines, the Gujarat genocide and of course the situation of hunger amidst plenty, with growing hunger deaths all around with the Centre and State Governments scoring points against each other and the emergence of the Right to Food campaign. He was also a part of the process of the World Social Forum in order to build an alternative global movement from the largest democracy in the world.

When the outrageous judgment happened on November 15, 1995, in the Bhanwari Devi gang rape case, no journalist in Jaipur would cover our critique that the rapists had been acquitted on grounds of caste and age, Neelabh was one of the only three or four reporters who reported it. Most of the Rajasthani press feared contempt. They kept telling us that they would write that we were moving the Rajasthan High Court against the judgment but there would be no critique of the horrendous judgment. The suggestion that we should go to Delhi and do a press conference came from Neelabh and other senior journalist friends like Sri Prakashji, Sunny Sebastian and Anant Krishna, which finally brought the issue into the mainstream. When we were planning the anti-judgment rally, Neelabh sat quietly in one corner translating the judgment into English which we wanted circulated. When we were drafting the appeal against the acquittal of the accused in the Bhanwari Devi case, for the High Court, Neelabh sat in the meetings with the lawyers, when Nikhil Wagle came to Jaipur to seek assistance of a lawyer against the contempt case filed against him, Neelabh was in all the deliberations, very soon he had become a part of our women’s collective, drafting, writing, advising doing all the tasks as required by the movement and at the same time continuing to be the journalist that he was, reporting, writing, analysing. He even agreed to carry telescopes for us to a destination 400 kms away from Jaipur when the total eclipse happened in October 1995. One of the most modest journalists that others and I had ever met in my life.

He grew very close to the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan and was very active in the right to information movement, including the setting up of the National Campaign for people’s right to information. Apart from sitting in the endless dharnas, he also wrote several articles on the movement. It was the Rajasthan story of the People’s Right to Information Movement that was published as an HDRC discussion paper by the UNDP in 2003, which was one of the first comprehensive writings on the genesis and the decade long movement. Apart from the writings he had a special relationship with all the members of the MKSS, whether workers or middle class, and all had a claim on him. He would have long discussions with them on how, from an issue-based movement, the platform of RTI had to be synergised with all the other social, political and economic issues inorder to collectively fight the antidemocratic, corporate, patriarchal, communal and casteist forces.

The platform which emerged from the women and the RTI movement, developed itself as the platform to combat drought and hunger and very soon we had several journalists including Neelabh doing stories related to hunger and the most famous amongst them being the ‘Anatomy of Hunger’, published in the Hindustan Times in May 2001, which became a very important document of the famous PUCL case on the Right to Food in the Supreme Court. He not only worked on the several affidavits filed in court on this issue but also helped us lay foundation of platform that later emerged as the Right to Food Campaign.

He had come to Rajasthan with two names that of Hemlata Prabhu, an educationist and who at that point was the General Secretary of the PUCL Rajasthan and Srilatha Swaminadhan, a leader of the CPIML Liberation party in Rajasthan, coming from a background of workers and farmers struggles. Very quickly he was working with them along with Aruna Roy and all of us for the revival of the PUCL in the state. All through the decade of the new millennium and to some extent even now, the platform of the PUCL emerged as one where all movements came together to work collectively on our democratic rights. Some of the path-breaking fact finding reports became the foundation for commissions and for all those combating anti-democratic forces including the communal forces. One of the first fact findings against land grab and the setting up of a beer factory in an ecologically fragile region of Alwar was done with Neelabh.

When Pravin Togadia, international president of VHP, was arrested in April 2003, Neelabh did the analysis and the translation of the several hate speeches taped by the PUCL volunteers in the State, where he was distributing Trishuls, for the case against him in the court. He also was part of the movement for the removal of the Manu Murti from the Rajasthan High Court, Jaipur Bench and participated in the padyatra from Mahad to Jaipur over December 25th 1999 to 26th January 2000 led by Baba Adhav from Pune in Maharashtra. Neelabh in 1997 was one of the first to break the story that India under Vajpayee was planning to do a nuclear test, which was halted then but carried out in 1998 May 11th. While Neelabh travelled to the Pokhran field firing range to both ends, the Luharki village end where the 1974 explosion had happened and the Khetolai end, where the 1998 tests were done and wrote several stories, but was equally a part of the organising that the PUCL did of meetings with the Hibakusha survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945. Including breaking the story that the PUCL exposed of Sanawada in Pokhran, being proposed as the place for depositing the nuclear intensive waste of the country, this drove the MECL out of Pokhran and Rajasthan. He along with others was a part of the founding of the Coalition for Nuclear Development and Peace India.

Neelabh’s continued association with movements were endless. Even when he shifted to Delhi he was always at the Jantar Mantar expressing solidarity with the groups that came. His journalism complimented his association with the various initiatives and struggles to keep Indian democracy alive, the pen did not lose its might when standing in solidarity or siding with the people in their effort to implement the constitution, fight oppression, despots and fascists. Our house in Delhi continued to be the centre where a lot of movements came to reflect, strategise and also just be.

There are no words to express how much Neelabh will be missed by me. Like Eric Fromm said, I want to be free like a rooted tree. Neelabh was my roots, that is how I was free.

It is John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning which sums up our togetherness

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just
And makes me end where I begun.

We were both the fixed foot and did the oblique run and that was life.

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