It was in the fall of 1979 that I first met Dr.Srikant Dutta at the Coffee House of the Delhi School of Economics in Delhi University. He was brought along by Prof. Sanjib Baruah now teaching in Bard College, New York, and major repository of thoughts and actions in the Northeast today. At the time he was pursuing his PhD from the University of Chicago while Srikant was pursuing his PhD from the London School of Economics in International Relations.
By the second cup of coffee I realised that I was talking to a genius of sorts – his knowledge of the world affairs as we began comparing the insurgency in Manipur building up then by the PLA and Prepak and those that were happening in the Latin American countries and elsewhere in Asia. In fact it was he who first pointed out that the happenings in Imphal was the second spell of Urban Insurgency in Asia after Saigon of 1968 and the first in India. He had never visited Northeast but everything was on the tip of his fingertips as if he was a participant observer to the happenings in the region. I was then in the process of initiating the Human Rights movement in Manipur by forming the Human Rights Movement in Manipur with an aim to challenge the Armed Forces Special Powers (Assam-Manipur) 1958, the next year.
He then explained the dynamics that works internationally on human rights violation issues – to the effect on the need to internationalize the issues-and to embarrass India before the United Nations and the world at large-which in effect would reflect in international grants and UN aids to India – and only then will India relent – and the fact that Amnesty International having a consultative status with the United Nations it’s reports are always placed and before the member Nations.
Then it was in the winter of 1979 that I received a letter from Amnesty International from kits International Headquarters in London to the effect “that we believe a Human Rights Organization had been set in Manipur and we are interested in your line of work and to keep the communication channel above”. It then began apparent that Srikant had walked across to the HQs of Amnesty International and had talked to the persons that mattered and hence the communication. And that was how Human Rights violation in Manipur began to attracting international attention. And the beauty of it was that he would never acknowledge his act when we tried to say thank you to him for he would just brush it off and say “Ahhah”.
Then after I began filing reports to Amnesty International, we were able to file the first writ petition before the Supreme Court of India challenging the Constitutional validity of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act on 10 October 1980 which took 17 long years for the Supreme Court to finally decide in 1997 and that being the year the Government of India was entering into negotiations with the Naga insurgents they had termed it as the Naga Peole’s Movement for Human Rights(NPMHR) Vs Union of India – the NPMHR was one of the latter four petitioners that was placed before the Supreme Court on the same issue – the Supreme Court to amuse the Naga underground had termed it as the NPMHR case.
Anyway by end 1980 I was homeless, having stayed continuously at my Ramjas College Hostel for more than seven years and Srikant had returned back to Delhi and was putting up at A-131 Pandara Road in the official quarters allotted to his aunt Krishna Dutt who was an Advisor with the Planning Commission then and was occupying it all by himself. So I asked him if I could move in and stay with him and without a second thought he said come pack in and then I moved to A-131 Pandara Road as my base in Delhi.
It was with him that I learnt what real scholarship was all about. He could sit from 8 in the morning till 8 in the evening at a stretch thumping away on his portable type writer and finally when he would finish he would ask for the bottle of Rum that had been stored earlier. And it was during these Rum sessions that we would discuss the day’s proceedings and it was then that I realized that had I not read in the morning I would not be able to communicate with him then.
Judging by my Darjeeling background he asked me to arrange for a meeting with B P Koirala the last democratically elected Prime Minister of Nepal before being overthrown by King Mahendra. He was convalescing at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. I got in touch with Koirala’s son who was with me in school in Darjeeling at North Point and soon fixed up a meeting with him. I was privy to that meeting and heard the grand old man of Nepal referring to Nehru and Eisenhower on first name terms – and after the meeting he simply said “thank you”.
Then I proceeded to Darjeeling to take up a teaching assignment with my Alma Mater at North Point. He landed up there and stayed with me at school. There he interacted with persons like Mahendra P Lama, later Vice-Chencellor of Sikkim University and Tibetan persons related to Chaing Kai Shek through marriage – although the murmur amongst my school staff was “here comes another know all”, even as I was often referred to as a walking encyclopaedia.
He completed his PhD from the London School of Economics in 17 months which was even after it was held back as one of the referees objected, stating that he was putting in a bad light. His topic was South-South Relations in which he was implying that countries in the southern hemisphere were exploiting other developing countries in the same region. Nonetheless he saw it through.
He was born to a Bengali father and an American mother but had Indian looks through and through and held an American Passport which he wanted to throw away but his looks made travels in the Northeast more easy, although the only Hindi word he could utter was “matlab”.
Amongst his friends circle who came visiting us at Pandara Road included Kaushik Basu, former Economic Advisor to the Government of India, Swapan Dasgupta, journalist turned politician who is now member of the Rajya Sabha, Gyan Pandey noted historian and Rhode Scholar, but was equally at ease with people like S.Amirlal Sharma now DIG Manipur Police and Prof. Elangbam Bijoy of Manipur University.
He died following a motorcycle accident on 27 November 1981 in New Delhi but retained his anti-capitalists stand till the end. His father was a very rich and successful arms dealer known for negotiating government level international arms purchases. Srikant was always resentful of the business, so even when he was on his deathbed in hospital after the motorcycle accident, he said “I do not want to be treated by my father’s black money”. To which we replied jokingly no you are not being treated by his but your uncle’s black money. He was only 27 years old then and was about to join the China Centre in Oxford University and Neville Maxwell of India’s China War wrote a condolence letter to me then.
Following his cremation I had brought along a portion of his ashes and immersed it at Kameng where the first encounter between security forces and the Manipuri militants took place and two Prepak cadres namely Dhiren and Gambhir were shot dead. A portion of the ashes were placed high up in the Himalayas in the Kanchendzonga range where I had written a small epitaph which simply read: “Srikant Dutt – where the wind is fast and free”.
Today there is an endowment with the Nehru Memorial Library and Trust in New Delhi to invite noted scholars of Northeast and the Himalayan region to give an annual lecture.
In 2016, my younger colleague, Pradip Phanjoubam became the first and only intellectual so far from Manipur, to be invited to give this prestigious annual lecture.
The writer is a veteran journalist and special representative of The Statesman, Kolkata