Of a different shade

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He may have been labelled a Naxal. But activist Sandeep Pandey is undeterred, says Neha Dixit

Soft target Sandeep Pandey with his family at his Lucknow home
Soft target Sandeep Pandey with his family at his Lucknow home
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

TYPE SANDEEP Pandey + Naxal on the search engine Google and you will stumble upon several blogs and websites that claim the noted social activist is a hardcore Naxalite. In real life, though, the 44-year-old is a Magsaysay Award winner and co-founder of Asha, an organisation devoted to providing basic education to underprivileged people.

But in post-Binayak Sen – the renowned social activist who was jailed for over two years on unproven charges of having Maoists links – India, Pandey is the latest victim of the State’s demonisation of the alternative voice. About 500 km from Delhi, sitting in his modest Lucknow house, his trepidation seems legitimate. “I doubt if there is some scope for grey still left in this country,” he says.

On September 26, news channel CNN IBN flashed Pandey’s photos, describing him as a Naxal leader in its bulletin. Pandey believes it was the correspondent’s ignorance and sees no motive behind it. As news of the howler spread, the channel soon apologised.

The episode may have been resolved, but what about the sustained campaign in blogosphere? The “inadvertent misreporting” by the channel has, in fact, highlighted how the process of exclusion is amplifying in a country plagued by terrorism; where activists are often perceived as irritants both by the State and separatist outfits.

Pandey says there is a prelude to the incident (of him being called a Naxal). On November 14, 2002, he attended a ceremony organised by the Communist Party of India, Marxist Leninist Liberation (CPIML), to honour the kin of those Naxalites who were killed in the peasant struggle over three decades. A year earlier, Asha had distributed more than Rs 4 crore for children’s education, charity they received from some organisations in the US. These charities were earlier funding the RSS and the Bajrang Dal. “The money that was earlier used for vandalism was now being utilised for children’s education. This annoyed entrenched interests here. My presence at the ceremony was therefore a good opportunity to malign me. They conveniently stamped me as a Naxal.”

‘I doubt if there is some scope for grey still left in this country,’ says Pandey

Pandey co-founded Asha while working on his Ph.D at the University of California. After graduating in 1991, he returned to India to teach at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. In 1992 he left the institute to devote himself full-time to Asha’s larger purpose: to bring about socio-economic change through education. In recognition of this work, he was conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2002.

The activist admits that his ideology does, at times, side with the Communists. “But what is the choice?” he asks. “The Congress is elitist and imperialistic. The BJP is communal, SP is opportunistic. Only the Left in this country, somewhat, has pro-poor policies. Hence, my allegiance towards the Left is obvious.” Pandey has, for almost 20 years, been working on human rights issues, protesting against fake encounters and oppressive policies of the State. But what’s commendable about the man is that there is not the slightest amount of pessimism against the State in him.

His views on Naxalism are paradoxical but transparent. He lauds Naxalism for bringing the peasants under one umbrella. Which is why he has even campaigned for CPI-ML candidates. But being a Gandhian, he is opposed to any form of violence. “During a meeting in Hyderabad, I saw a young man distributing pamphlets which called me a Naxal. When I invited him for a discussion, he ran away. The problem is that it is convenient to believe what is in the air.” There is also a tendency to exaggerate one’s leanings and ideologies in order to stigmatise. “Putting one in either black or white is a way to categorise,” he says. “But that can never stop me from working for those on the margins.”

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