“My parents were not in favor of my husband as he was a student leader who had gone to jail a few times. As a result, we had a small wedding hosted by his good friend Mahavir. After the wedding, Mahavir let us stay at his place for a few weeks till we figured out where to go. A simple time in the December of 1982, we were in our early 20s and the home was filled with friendship and love,” 60-year-old Jagmati Sangwan said with a smile that traveled through her voice, in a call with this reporter, from Haryana’s Rohtak district.
Twenty years later Sangwan is again at Mahavir’s place, this time however she is waiting patiently, with several other friends, for Mahavir’s daughter Natasha to return home from Tihar jail in Delhi.
Sangwan, who is also a member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, says with surety. “We will support Natasha just like we have till now. She is our daughter who has done nothing wrong. We are all here for them.”
When Sangwan says she will support Natasha, she is referring to the ongoing cases against her in connection with the northeast Delhi riots of February 2020. While Natasha has been granted bail in other cases, she is yet to secure bail under FIR 59 where the anti-terror law UAPA has been invoked. The provisions of UAPA are as such that bail is nearly impossible. As a result, Natasha, who has been accused of conspiring the communal violence, had not met her father for over a year.
Her lawyers moved for bail on 8 May, five days after Mahavir had contracted COVID with the additional vulnerability of diabetes, was hospitalised in a private hospital in Rohtak. The matter was heard only on 10 May morning. Meanwhile, on 9 May, Mahavir breathed his last at 71.
‘Mahavir’s Disorientation and Moving Him to Hospital’
His friend, neighbour and comrade, 61-year-old Surendra Malik, says he is one of the two witnesses who signed on documents to admit Mahavir to a private hospital on 3 May. Malik, who is also the state secretary of CPI-M, remembers the exact moment that the call was taken to get hospitalise Mahavir.
"In the days leading up to hospitalisation Mahavir had COVID. He had to have paracetamol as he had a fever, but he did not. When I asked him why he skipped the medicine, he said that his mind was not working. I asked him again as I was not sure of what he meant. He again said that he does not remember if he had the medicine or not and that his mind was not working properly. This is when we insisted that he go to the hospital,” Malik said referring to the concerning COVID symptom of disorientation that.
Malik said that Mahavir had tried to help himself through breathing exercises before the move to the hospital was made. But as the condition was getting precarious, and his oxygen levels were falling, everyone looked for oxygen cylinders.
Finally, he was moved to Pozitron hospital in Rohtak on 3 May.
Among those who helped him at his hour of need, were the several hundred who had visited his home over the years.
‘Not Your Average Student Leader’
His friends tell us that Mahavir was born in Banwasa village of Sonipat district where he did his schooling. He then went to Haryana Agricultural University where he did his BSE, MSE, and PhD. “He was a gold medalist during his BSc (Bachelor of Science) and MSc (Master of Science) degree. He was a rare student who always got an A grade in every subject. He was very brilliant at grasping knowledge,” his roommate during bachelors and masters, 70-year-old Inderjit Singh, told this reporter.
Malik said there was one distinct quality that set Mahavir apart from everyone, he said, "As a student leader, he was a real model of study and struggle. He took out time to ace his exams and he also took out time to work for the working class. There is a general image of a student leader, that they do not study, that they are bullies, but he was a class apart. He was a thinker, philosopher, constantly studying and growing."
Several young students were inspired by Mahavir and drawn to him for his approachability and gentle nature. “Mahavir’s home was never locked. People kept trickling in, dropping by for consultations and advice. The poorest migrant workers or farmer on the street to well-known academicians, everyone looked forward to spending hours with him,” Malik said.
There is a list of organisations that Mahavir was involved with from the days as a student leader in Haryana Agriculture University, to when he completed his studies to become a scientist in plant breeding in the same university.
He was a founding member of the Student Federation of India and was jailed two to three times. One of these times was with Singh, who is a Kisan Sabha worker, agricultural scientist and was state secretary of CPI-M for very long, “In 1976 during Emergency, we were arrested. We were against the NSUI hegemony on the campus. The district magistrate had issued an order for preventive detention of people under the controversial Maintainance of Internal Security Act (MISA).”
The law had been enacted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, giving law enforcement agencies wide-ranging powers including the indefinite detention of people. The law was eventually repealed in 1977 after the Janata Party formed the government after the Emergency.
'Held His Head High After His Daughter Was Jailed Under UAPA’
...“So you see, he knew the power and purpose of draconian laws.”
His friends believe that Mahavir set the benchmark very high for the relationship he had with his daughter. “I can say that no other father in Rohtak would stand by his daughter as Mahavir did. He was made of something else. Not only was his daughter opinionated, but she was also sent to jail. Any other father would have trembled at this thought, felt embarrassed and angry, but Mahavir held his head high,” Sangwan said.
All the three friends The Quint spoke to had seen Natasha grow up in front of their eyes. “Natasha who could not throw a stone at an animal, how could she be involved in rioting?” Malik said, adding that for Mahavir, it was a matter of pride that his daughter was fighting to preserve democracy and the constitution.
Among other things, Mahavir would work to organise the workers such as construction workers and mess workers in his campus into Unions. “Because of our efforts the administration opened a government school for the kids of workers. It started with a primary school and then a secondary school was also built,” Singh said.
Sangwan said that, unlike other male student leaders, Mahavir took an interest in politics around women too. He was also involved in working for the widows of professors on campus. “After the husband would die, the administration would ask the woman to leave the accommodation, this is when he would step in and mediate. He would ensure there was some money, a job, and the kids’ education was not interrupted,” Sangwan said.
He was also the president of Haryana Agriculture University Teachers’ Association, one of the founders of the Haryana Vigyan Manch and he was till before his death the state (Haryana) president of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti.
‘Did Not Know He Had Touched So Many Hearts’
And as Mahavir’s network grew, he came in touch with people from all walks of life including farmers, construction workers, scientists, intellectuals and political thinkers.
His friends say that Mahavir’s death feels like a personal loss for everyone. “We are quite overwhelmed to the reaction to his death. We did not think he had touched so many hearts. We can feel how so many are engulfed by the pain. I am not surprised though. Kyuki jo bhi unse mila, vo unse prabhavit hue bagair nahi raha. Unmein itna pyaar tha logo ko jeet lene ka. (As whoever met him, they could not go without being influenced by him. He had that much love in him to win people),” Malik said.
Words like compassionate, sensitive, gentle, kind, reliable, empathetic are used again and again to describe Mahavir in these conversations. “So many people are crying today, just imagine the number of people he must have helped,” Malik said.
Nostalgia swept over Sangwan as she told us how Mahavir would joke around with her. Her wedding was a few weeks after Sangwan had won the bronze medal for India at the 1980 Asian Volleyball Championships in Seoul, South Korea. “I did not wear sarees, but for the wedding I did. He looked at me in a saree, someone who has always been in track pants all her life and burst out laughing. He told me jokingly, that if he was to marry me he would ensure I would wear a tracksuit for the reception. He was obviously mocking how uncomfortable I was, and I really was,” she said laughing non-stop, making this reporter having to confirm what she said a few times over. She obliged.
“Bohut badi jagah khali ho gayi hai (He has left a big void behind),” Sangwan says.
‘It’s a Tragedy That Mahavir Could Not Meet Natasha’
As they wait for Natasha to come home, they all know they are going to meet a heartbroken daughter.
Malik says it is unfortunate that they could not meet. He adds:
Sangwan can’t help think that if the courts had heard her bail plea on 9 May, would, by some stroke of luck, he be alive today. “Or just the fact that he would see his daughter, she would speak to him once more, that did not happen. Mahavir did not deserve this.”
The friends organised the funeral for 11 May morning. “We knew that even though the courts had ordered her release around noon (10 May), she was only going to be released much later. Good we assumed there would be a delay, it is regrettable that this is how we treat our political prisoners though,” Singh said.
Sangwan adds that it is unfair that these are the circumstances around the death of a man who could not hurt a fly. “How does one forget the many things he did as a true and reliable friend... When Natasha comes home, we will all be here.”
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