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Verghese Kurien

Verghese Kurien

As this column appears in print, it marks 45 years of my arrival in New Delhi and journalism. One of the problems I faced in the Capital city those days was the inaccessibility to milk. At RK Puram where I stayed, milk was distributed in bottles by the Delhi Milk Scheme (DMS) but they were available only to the allottees of the government flats. They, too, got in a rationed quantity.

Of course, there were private milk distributors who came with two big aluminium jars on both sides of their Java motorcycles. I would occasionally buy from them. The milk drought ended only when the milk booths that we see in every nook and cranny of the city began to be set up. The city was suddenly assured of enough supply of milk.

The first such booth was set up at the Krishi Bhavan premises. All that one needed to do was to go to the booth, buy a token, insert it in the machine and get half a litre of milk through the outlet. It was advertised that the milk was pasteurised and it could be consumed straight within a few minutes of collecting it from the machine.

Nowadays, people find it more convenient to buy milk made available through plastic pouches, for it does away with the bother of carrying a vessel to the vending machine. The advent of the machine preceded an International Dairy Conference organised in the national Capital.

The conference was undoubtedly a one-man show, though hundreds of delegates came from all over the world. The man who revolutionised milk supply in the Capital, nay the country, was Verghese Kurien. He had once famously said that if the Krishi Bhavan was bombed out of existence, it would have made little impact on the Indian farmers. He never minced his words.

Those days “terrorism” did not mean what it means today. It was perfectly fine to mention the “terrorist movement” in Bengal and Punjab which was an integral part of the freedom movement. Had he used the word “bomb” today, he would have been hauled over the coals for the same. Kurien is now a revered person. His birthday — November 26 — is celebrated as the National Milk Day.

If Kurien’s story has become the story of India’s White Revolution, it is because he had the vision to utilise the strength of the cooperative spirit among the farmers to build up the world’s largest dairy network ending India’s dependence on the milk powder imports, mostly from the US via Public Law 480.

All this did not prevent one Dilip Sanghani, a former Gujarat minister and BJP leader who is also the vice-chairman of the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation, from alleging that Kurien used Amul funds to promote religious conversion, especially in the Dangs district in Gujarat.

Sanghani who claims to be a pure-blooded Hindu did not even know that to attack the dead was an abominable act, unacceptable in any religion, culture or society. This is so because the dead cannot defend himself or herself.

In the late eighties, I was a guest of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) at Anand. I was very excited, as I could get a first-hand knowledge of the revolutionary changes the dairy industry was undergoing those days. Two items I brought from Anand were two Tetra packets of milk, which had a shelf life of six months, and a packet of chewable chocolate for the cow. Since I did not have a cow, I gave it to our milkman at Patna to be given to his cow whom he brought to my house for milking.

Though Kurien was born in Kerala and had gone to Gujarat in search of a job, he considered himself a Gujarati, not a Malayali. When I interviewed him, there was one question which provoked him. In response to that question, he asked me, a little rhetorically: “If, suppose, a Gujarati does well in business in Kerala, will the Kerala Government appoint him to the post of Chairman of the Kerala State Electricity Board?” Those were the days of the “sons-of-the-soil” theory!

My answer was “no”. The moment I gave the answer, he asked me, “Do you know that I was once chairman of the Gujarat State Electricity Board?” Today I would have answered him differently by mentioning that Prabhat Patnaik was once appointed vice-chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board, though he was not a Malayali. Sanghani’s attempt was to glorify Tribhuvandas Patel and denigrate Kurien.

What he did not know is that Kurien had the greatest regard for Patel. In fact, he encouraged me to go and meet Patel who lived on the same campus at Anand. True, it was Patel who recognised the talent in Kurien and gave him a free hand to build up the cooperative movement. Patel was himself a farmer and had considerable influence on the farmers’ community. Whenever Kurien faced any difficulty in dealing with the farmers or the local authorities, it was to Patel that he rushed.

True, without Patel’s support, Kurien would not have been able to achieve much. After interviewing Kurien, I went to Patel’s ashram-like house. When I told him that Kurien had directed me to him, he was very happy and he answered all my questions in a language I could understand. I could make out the bond that existed between the two great men of Gujarat.

A few years later when Patel died, I was with the Hindustan Times in New Delhi and wrote an edit on the signal contributions he made to the dairy industry. His greatest contribution was finding talent in Kurien and reposing his faith in him. The next day, I noticed that ours was the only newspaper which carried an editorial on him.

Sanghani should have known that it is not uncommon for the disciple to become more famous than the master. Yesterday, I read a report that a statue of Swami Vivekananda would come up on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. I was not surprised by the report because the current dispensation in the country is now well-known all over the world for its statue-making spree.

Does Sanghani know that Swami Vivekananda was a disciple of Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansa? If he does not, he should visit his memorials at Kamarpukur village, Hoogly District, West Bengal, and the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple Compound in Kolkata, as I did. Then he would know that he was one of the most prominent religious figures of India during the 19th century. He was a mystic and yogi who translated complex spiritual concepts into lucid and easily intelligible language.

Yet, why are Swami’s statues coming up everywhere and not Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s? The answer is simple, the disciple has become more famous than his master. Does Sanghani know that no teacher would like his student to become what he is? Every teacher would be the happiest if his student achieves greater fame and success than him?

Sanghani is totally mistaken if he thinks that he has done a great service to Tribhuvandas Patel by praising him and denigrating Kurien. What a pity that he holds a job in the cooperative sector and yet does not know a thing about Kurien or his relationship with Patel! It is no surprise that he did not know anything about the religious belief of Kurien.

He went by Kurien’s name alone and he presumed that he would have used Amul money to propagate his religion. His daughter Nirmala has already rubbished his claim by pointing out that Kurien was an atheist. He was cremated, and not buried. What’s more, when his wife died, she too was cremated. And where do their remains remain? In the same area where Tribhuvandas Patel’s remains.

Alas, Sanghani is not the only leader to make such mistakes. Narendra Modi wanted to cash in on the Gujarat pogrom even before the embers of it had died down. The then Chief Election Commissioner, JM Lyngdoh, did not play ball with him. Modi went around insinuating in public that “James Michael Lyngdoh” and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi would meet every Sunday at the Cathedral Church in Delhi and plan their strategy against “Gujarat”. Those days he considered himself a personification of Gujarat.

What he did not know was that Lyngdoh, like Kurien, was an atheist who did not attend any church. Modi’s knowledge of Hinduism is as limited as his knowledge of economics and foreign affairs, though he pretends to be a master of all and jack of none. Otherwise, he would have known that anybody who professes to be an atheist can never be a Christian while atheism is an accepted doctrine in Hinduism.

In short, by professing atheism, they came closer to Hinduism, as they moved away from Christianity. In attacking Kurien, Sanghani has just moved on the path once trodden by Modi. He should know that atheism is the fastest growing religion in the world. It is no surprise that the so-called Christians are at the forefront of it.

Neither Sanghani, nor Modi would have heard about one Abraham Thomas Kovoor who in the 20th century started the rationalist movement in India and Sri Lanka. He was a Botanist, who knew all the tricks employed by Godmen and God women. He challenged all of them to claim a prize of Rs 1 lakh, a very big sum those days, if they could correctly say the number of a currency note kept in a sealed envelope.

None of those who claim to cure patients of incurable diseases or those who produce from nowhere “holy ash” for the poor and costly articles for the rich has come forward to claim the prize. He exposed all of them as charlatans, pure and simple. AT Kovoor was the son of Kovoor Iype Thoma Kathanar, who was popularly known as Kovoor Achen.

A contemporary of my grandfather, he was the Vicar-General of the Mar Thoma Church and spearheaded the reform movement in the church. That did not prevent his son from becoming the foremost rationalist of his time. Kovoor had a great follower in India at that time. He was Joseph Edamaruku who shifted to Delhi to carry on his campaign against all religions. His son Sanal Edamaruku is believed to be in Germany where, too, he practices atheism.

I mention all this to tell Modi and Company that it is foolish to consider all those who bear a Christian name as Christian, just as all those who bear a Hindu name as Hindu. It is not the responsibility of the state or anyone, for that matter, to find out the religious faith of a person.

The best Bible-thumbing and prayerful Christian I know is a friend by the name Krishnan Kutty who handled the Speaking Tree column in the Times of India for many years. Week after week, he published articles that brought out the gems from all religious faiths. The column had an ardent supporter in the wife of the ToI owner.

Every day I pass by the Indian Dairy Association office on my way to my office and I see a tribute paid to him. Year after year, the cheerful blue-haired little moppet in a red polka-dotted dress, known as the Amul girl, pays a tribute to Kurien on his birth anniversary. This year she conferred the Amul Rattan award on him. One one-liner I remember is: “Give us this day our daily bread .. and Amul butter”. If the taste of breakfast has changed in India, it is because of Amul butter!

It is such a man whom Sanghani has tried to denigrate by accusing him of misusing the farmers’ money to promote religious conversions. Why did he not make the allegation when Kurien was alive? If the BJP has any sense of decency, it should ask him to withdraw the statement and apologise to the farmers of Gujarat to whom Verghese Kurien brought nothing but “Anand”.

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 03rd December 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 49)