Both Dilip Kumar and Stan Swamy opened their hearts to the powerless
In the span of just 48 hours this week, two famous old men passed away very close to each other in the Mumbai locality of Bandra. Their lifestyles were wildly divergent, but the life stories of Dilip Kumar and Stan Swamy nonetheless converge to reveal important truths about India after 1947.
Naturally, the film star’s story is more familiar. Mohammad Yusuf Khan was born in Peshawar in 1922, changed his name upon entering the film industry (Jwar Bhata in 1944 was his first starring role) and had become India’s reigning superstar by the 1950s, which position he retained for an entire generation.
Less familiar was the actor’s behind-the-scenes activism. As the civil rights campaigner Teesta Setalvad tweeted: “For many of us Mumbaikars, Yousufsaab was as much the electrifying actor and star as [the] humane, compassionate Mumbaikar. We saw this closely as Bombay burned, 1992-93; he helped in re-building and healing [between] ruptured communities.”
Even before that however, Kumar had thrown his efforts into the All India Muslim OBC Organization fighting for traditionally marginalized lower caste Muslims (aka Pasmandas).
Writing in the Deccan Herald, Abhijit Anand recounts that “Dilip Saheb officially joined the AIMOBCO in 1990 and associated with its organizational activities on almost a daily basis. He participated in more than a hundred public meetings all over India [where his] celebrity status attracted large crowds and jolted the political class to heed the demands of people.”
It is interesting to note that Kumar “insisted that reservation for Pasmandas should not be seen as a religious issue. He said it was a social tool to uplift this socially and educationally backward community, which happens to be Muslims. He said Pasmandas suffered caste marginalization. Their discriminatory categorization into occupational biradaries (communities) restricted their economic mobility and social development.”
As far as Kumar was concerned, writes Anand, the Indian constitution offered solutions: “Reservations were a constitutional process, and marginalized communities should use the opportunity for social and economic mobility. He helped people get organized, made them understand the rationale behind reservations, and brought them together to agitate from a common platform. He became a medium to spread the voices that were unheard till then.”
All this rather uncannily mirrors the ethics and efforts of the other notorious old man who died in Bandra this week.
Stanislaus Lourduswamy was born 1937 in ancient Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu, about as far away from Peshawar as you can get while still remaining in the sub-continent.
He became a Jesuit priest specifically intending to serve the underprivileged, and was further inspired during graduate studies as the University of Manila, where he witnessed, up close, the gallant people’s movements against kleptocratic dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Upon returning to India, Swamy brought that same degree of tireless energy to his work on behalf of some of the most disenfranchised people in the world: The indigenous (aka Adivasi) age-old residents of “the land of forests” that is Jharkhand.
In his moving tribute to the deceased priest in Scroll.in, Harsh Mander (an acclaimed social activist who is the director of the Centre for Equity Studies in New Delhi) recalls Swamy telling him, “Jharkhand is a rich land comprising very poor people. From coal to gold, we have it. Those who enrich Jharkhand return hugely enriched, but the Adivasi residents only become even more pauperized. If you have sensitivity and a conscience, you have no option [but] to take sides with those who are suffering, and resisting.”
However, says Mander, “what defined [him] was not just this indomitable fearlessness, and his uncompromising outrage with injustice. Until the end, what shone through the man was an iridescent humanity, the deepest compassion.”
Thus, while one can scarcely compute the dissimilarities in the way Dilip Kumar and Stan Swamy traversed the decades, as well as 2,700 kilometres separating Peshawar and Tiruchirapalli, to wind up dying in Hinduja and Holy Family hospitals in Bandra less than two days apart, here’s one frame of reference in which they are identical. Both men sincerely opened their hearts to the powerless, and believed in the possibility of justice even in our infinitely imperfect world.
Mander reminds us: “In his letters to his Jesuit colleagues from Taloja central jail, rather than dwelling on his own suffering, [Swamy] spoke with grief about the plight of his fellow prisoners.”
In one of those, from January this year, Father Stan talked about deriving “strength” from his fellow prisoners: “A majority of them come from economically & socially weaker communities. Overall, almost all undertrials are compelled to live to a bare minimum, whether rich or poor. This brings in a sense of brotherhood & communitarianism where reaching out to each other is possible even in this adversity.”
Then this prisoner of conscience wrote: “We will still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.