Mukul Sinha, self-effacing Modi opponent and labour organiser who disliked being called a leader

Don't work against a person, Sinha had urged – work to change ideas.

When Mukul Sinha moved to Ahmedabad in 1973, he had no intention of staying in Gujarat. He was 22 years old and he found the city disorientating.

“There was a lot of wealth in Ahmedabad and I did not know where I could fit in,” Sinha told me during a lengthy interview in 2011. “I was just a poor science student.”

Sinha planned to return to Kolkata after Ahmedabad. “I was born in Calcutta in 1951 and as a Bengali, it is drilled into your head that you are a higher species,” Sinha said. “And if you are a Bengali outside of Calcutta, then you are really not a Bengali.”

Despite his love for Kolkata, Sinha had spent very little time there as a child. His father worked with the Indian Railways and they moved every few years. Sinha eventually completed his bachelors degree in Bilaspur, where he developed a passion for physics. “It is a logical, objective discipline,” Sinha said. “It was the 1960s and we had great hope that science would take India forward.”

He was content with a bachelor’s degree but his father filled out an application to a master’s program at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. “I really have no idea how I got in. I was sort of drifting and I did not really like IIT. All my friends there were aspiring to move to America, but I never shared that ambition. Did we struggle for our independence so we could take the first chance to move out of India?” Sinha said.

It was his elder brother who pushed him to apply for a PhD in physics at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad. “I hated it,” Sinha said with a wide smile. “It was the most useless time ever. But then my life changed in 1977. I fell in love. It was cosmic.”

Nirjhari was a 22-year-research assistant at the same laboratory. “She was so lovely. She is so lovely,” Sinha said. “I called my mom right away. My mother replied, ‘Are you telling me you are getting married or are you asking me?’ I said I am telling you.” His mother accepted, but she did not understand why he wanted to remain in Ahmedabad. “She kept saying, ‘So this means you will not return to Calcutta?’”

Nirjhari’s parents were not thrilled either. “Nirjhari comes from a strict Jain family," Sinha said. "Very wealthy. What surprised them was not that I was a poor student, but that I had no desire to be wealthy. That confused them. But Nirjhari fought for me and Nirjhari’s grandmother finally accepted the marriage, although she had two conditions: try to make money and please avoid eating fish. I was so excited to marry her. And I thought since I am marrying into a wealthy family, maybe they will give me something nice. All I got was a scooter. I called it my scooter-in-law.”

In 1979, Sinha completed his PhD and accepted a research position in the school’s laboratory. But his life changed soon after. “I will never forget the date: September 13, 1979. One hundred and thirty three people were laid off from the university,” Sinha said. In response, Sinha formed a labor union and began fighting for workers’ rights. A few months later, Sinha was let go as well.

“I remember when the person came to terminate my job. I knew he was coming, so I told Nirjhari to make a big pot of chai and put out some snacks. Here, this guy thought he could just drop off my termination slip and leave, but we made him stay for chai. It was hilarious,” Sinha said. “We became good friends and when he died, Nirjhari helped his wife find a job. I am very proud of my wife for doing that.”

Losing his science job was, apart from the birth of his son Pratik, the happiest moment in Sinha’s life. “Can you imagine if I had stayed a scientist?”  Sinha said. “I would have become a fossil like all my friends.”

Sinha spent the 1980s devoted to labour organising, but he found himself ill-equipped. “I did not even know where the High Court of Gujarat was,” Sinha said. He enrolled in a law school in Ahmedabad and finished in 1989, a decision he credits to his long-time friend, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt. “Mahesh is a great friend and he convinced me to go to law school,” Sinha said.  “Mahesh said law school would give me independence, protection, and livelihood. He was right.”

A year after he graduated law school in 1990, Sinha co-founded the Jan Sangharsh Manch, a group dedicated to labour issues. One of their first projects was to help unionise bus drivers in Gujarat. “None of us had any experience, but I think we gave some people a good scare,” Sinha said.

As an activist, Sinha learned that the most important thing was to listen and to be willing to re-invent himself, something he did when LK Advani began his Rath Yatra in 1990. “What this bugger [Advani] was doing was to distract people. I knew from my experience in labour organising that the real issue is inequality—not building another mandir or masjid,” Sinha said.

Over a decade later, Sinha found himself confronting the same problem. On February 28, 2002, the day after the Godhra train attack, a member of JSM named Syed came to Sinha with tears in his eyes. Sinha, whose office in a Muslim building in Ahmedabad was burned down the same day, was shaken.

“It was horrific,” Sinha said. “Syed’s family was attacked. I was very hurt for my friend, but I did not like that Syed was crying. I hate crying. What does crying get us? So, I told Syed to write an email. He said he did not know how to do email, so I taught him on the spot and his email was one of the first eye-witness accounts of the riots.” (The email can be read here.)

After the 2002 pogrom, Sinha became known as a human rights lawyer and a Gujarat riot activist. Neither term sat well with him and he always saw himself, and his work, through the lens of a labour organiser. “What both 1992 and 2002 did was to fool people into believing that the communal divide is greater than the class divide,” Sinha said. “As soon as you convince a society that Muslims or whatever group is the problem, you have tricked them into overlooking the real problems like labour laws, corruption, housing shortages, and poor infrastructure.”

Sinha became more visible after the 2002 riots, but he grew to dislike the term “JSM leader” or “human rights leader”. For one, he thought this was disrespectful to his wife, who he saw as an equal—and sometimes greater—contributor to JSM’s work, someone who always pushed him to fight more. Once in 2012 when I visited his home in Ahmedabad, he kindly asked me to reschedule my interview as his wife was not feeling well. Before I could walk out the door, Nirjhari shouted, “Nonsense Mukul. I am fine. Do the interview.”

Sinha was also mistrustful of the term leader because his whole life was dedicated to finding new voices and empowering them. During the many times I visited Sinha, I met some of Gujarat’s most respected judges, journalists, and activists. But just as often, I also met bus drivers, railway workers, and labourers, each of whom Mukul was training. This was perhaps his finest quality—he taught others and amplified their voices, even if it meant muting his own.

Best of all, he did this all with a sense of humour. I remember several years ago when I asked him to explain India’s anti-terrorism laws, Sinha shook his head and smiled. “For that, you will need to have a drink first before you can understand my answer.”

As his lung cancer advanced in the past six months, it was Sinha who always cheered us up, not the other way around. When I visited his house with several journalists this December after the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was given a “clean chit” in the Zakia Jafri case, Sinha told us stories from Alice in Wonderland to help us understand the ruling. “You know emotion is not an argument that holds up in court,” Sinha reminded us.

This is what set Sinha apart—he was a gentle, loving friend with unwavering commitment to his cause yet he also understood that passion, when misplaced, can as easily blind as it can guide. “Yes, speak with your heart, but make sure your tongue is clinical,” he was fond of saying.

Since his death on Monday, I have received messages from friends who tell me the timing is eerie, just days before the Lok Sabha’s results are announced. “It is probably better that Mukul did not live to see Modi become prime minister,” one friend wrote to me.

The beautiful thing about Sinha is that he urged us to think outside our historical moment and outside these electoral parameters. “If you believe in a person or work against a person, you are bound to be disappointed,” Sinha told me once. “You will develop false hope and you will become fatigued. But if your goal is to change ideas, then this will sustain you.”

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