In the summer of ’98, my extended family gathered in our Allahabad home. I was only eight years old but it was clear to me that the room was a battlefield. My aunts, grand-aunts, uncles had huddled up in one camp, while my grandfather, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, dressed in a comfortable white kurta and loose pyjamas, sat alone on a sofa on the other side. For the first time, I heard the words “Mandal Commission”.

Little did I know that these two words had defined the destiny of my family along with vast majority of Indians, who could look towards the Indian state no longer as their oppressor but saviour.

I sat next to my grandfather. Every five minutes, a mortar of words exploded near him. “Raja Bhadur, you have betrayed us, and look where the Thakurs are now,” my grandaunt said. “Your decisions have changed the fate of the upper castes forever.”

His reply was equanimous and mild. “We Thakurs have taken a sacred oath to protect society, especially the exploited and the depressed,” he said. “We must understand that our hands have wielded the whip over the lower classes for 5,000 years, denied them education and prosperity, now have to open the doors of power for them. We together must now lay the foundations of socially empowered India. I have simply performed my duty.”

Gandhian idealism

Today, on his 85th birth anniversary, this unforgettable lesson in social justice still guides me. With little written about the former prime minister, almost no effort has been made to remember his contributions to the making of contemporary India. Aggrieved with this lapse, the people of his erstwhile estate of Daiya-Manda in the Trans-Yamuna area of Allahabad, his clansmen and kin have dedicated 2016 to commemorate his social vision. Hundreds of young volunteers have come together to form a working committee to organise events all throughout the year to honour Singh’s ideals and retrace some of his early steps.

VP Singh’s most significant contribution to social justice in India was his decision to implement the Mandal commission report relating to affirmative action for people who were socially and educationally backward. But at a Mandal Milan event to commemorate the affirmative action programme in January, I heard many stories of Singh’s early Gandhian life.

In 1956-’57, the Gandhian activist Vinobha Bhave was walking through Allahabad area on his Bhoodan mission to redistribute land to the landless. VP Singh, then 26, followed his first guru to initiate massive saramdhan, or gift of labour, activities in the area. After giving away all his land – about 200 bighas – to the Bhoodan movement, people told me about how that he spent long hours in the torrid summer repairing ponds and wells around their homes.

He also walked hundreds of kilometres, going from home to home seeking donations for the first people’s school in Koraon. It was to be place of learning for all people of the area, ensuring quality education beyond the barriers of caste.

That energy never left him. In his later years, even cancer and renal failure couldn’t conquer him. After his prime ministerial tenure from 1989-'90, his vision grew larger. He had gained a much deeper knowledge of the forces that were trying to tear apart the nation. He believed that India's integrity was being undermined by the forces of Hindutva and of corporate hegemony.

Corporate hegemony

One evening, a little before his 75th birthday, he called me to his room in a rather pensive mood. After a long silence, I asked what troubled him. “The Indian small farmers are hardest and most honest workers, their toils and labour feed India and but most of them barely manage enough to feed their family,” he said. “Any person or corporation who exploits the Indian farmers, commits an egregious sin on the very soul of India.”

He had foreseen the capture of Indian farm land by corporations. If the “government fails to acquire land legally, they will arm twist the farmers for corporate profits” he predicted. “In the age of corporate control, gold is the only god.” The only way to defend farmers, he said, was to make them self sufficient. It took me a long time to understand how to do this. The answer actually seems simple: by using traditional methods of agriculture and organic farming, cultivators could gain prosperity and food security.

In March, with over 5,000 farmers in attendance, we started the Jaivik Kisan Manch to make Allahabad the first organic city in Uttar Pradesh.

Many Indians may not still understand VP Singh's role in building our modern nation. But I hope there will always be people who still believe in social justice and truth, who may not remember his name but continue to fight for his ideals.

Indra Shekhar Singh's Twitter handle is @IndraSsingh.