Once dubbed ‘mad’ by his own, he is now a mass leader(Feature)

June 4th, 2008 - 2:12 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sahil Makkar
Bayana (Rajasthan), June 4 (IANS) As a soldier he fought wars. Years later, when he along with his wife began campaigning for job quotas for his community, he was dubbed “mad” by his own people. Today, Kirori Singh Bainsla has emerged as a mass leader, commanding tens of thousands of angry Gujjars in the desert state of Rajasthan. For one who was shunned by many who thought he was suggesting the impossible, the 69-year-old retired colonel of the Indian Army has become a near god for the economically backward community that number about 50 million in the country’s north.

And Bainsla is just the kind the Gujjars would be proud of.

Bainsla is today one of the biggest newsmakers in India. Indian and foreign journalists are after him, trying to understand the man and the cause he spearheads, linked to the larger issue of India’s complex caste system and affirmative action policies which are perhaps the most sweeping in the world.

In contrast to most community members, the rustic-looking Bainsla is at home in both English and Hindi, loves Hollywood movies (he often refers to the old classic “Gone With the Wind”), and talks about Victor Hugo, Virginia Wolf and also about the French Revolution.

For a man of humble origin, he is in many ways a self-made man, one who had a wife who was equally committed to raise the standards of Gujjars, a mainly rural community that is heavily into raising cattle. Today, the Gujjars’ aspirations are rising.

Officially, the Gujjars are one of the many Other Backward Classes (OBCs). But the Gujjars were not able to reap the benefits of quotas in jobs and educational institutions, pitted as they were against better-educated communities. Bainsla felt that the community, to take advantage of affirmative action policies, needed to become downwardly mobile - that is go down the social ladder - and seek official recognition as a tribe.

After all, the Gujjars were once dubbed a ‘criminal tribe’ by the British. That pejorative label was discarded only in 1951 — after India became free.

When Bainsla and his wife - they were married when he was just 14 years old - began arguing in favour of tribal status, they were scorned. Although Gujjars in some parts of the country had already been declared Scheduled Tribe (ST), in Rajasthan they were not. Many did not want to be known as ST.

“People used to call me ‘mad’, I was dubbed an ‘idiot’,” Bainsla told IANS, seated close to a now crippled railway track, ringed by hundreds of Gujjar men and women armed with farm implements and bamboo sticks. “‘Budda sala pagal ho gaya,’ (The old man has gone mad), they would say.”

“But we persisted, my wife and I,” Bainsla went on, speaking in English, occasionally switching to Hindi. “We met community leaders, village heads, everyone.”

His wife died in 1996. But he persisted, quietly, with a steely resolve that only soldiers could have mastered.

One of his legs got paralysed recently, forcing him to use a walking stick. It was a great fall for one who joined the Indian Army as a sepoy (soldier), fought the Chinese Army in 1962 and the Pakistan Army in 1965. He was later posted in Jammu and Kashmir and also in the troubled northeast.

“When I retired from the army, my wife and I used to think a lot about our community,” he went on, caressing his thick grey moustache. “We were intent on educating our people about our rights.”

Bainsla’s persistence paid off. Slowly, more and more Gujjars began to agree with him. Last year, when the unknown Bainsla called for mass protests, the community obeyed. But it led to police firing, and 27 people were killed.

The violence erupted again last month as tens of thousands of Gujjars again poured out of their homes in a vast stretch of desert territory not far from the Indian capital, crippling road and train traffic to make the authorities kneel. This time at least 40 people were killed.

A heavy smoker, the army connection runs deep into his family. His father was a soldier in the British Army. His two sons, Daulat Bainsla and Jai Bainsla, are commissioned officers in the Indian Army. His third son is in a telecom company, and his daughter is an income tax commissioner.

“One reason I can engaged myself fully in the cause is because my children are well settled,” Bainsla told IANS. “I don’t have to worry about them.” Now, he only worries about the larger family - Gujjars.

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