There are a few people you come across in your life who leave a permanent impression on you. They are people who seem to be above the ordinary, full of wisdom and compassion, and who can rightfully be called ‘jewels amongst men’. Amongst the few that I have met and interacted with, I would consider Shri Chamanlal as the ‘rarest’ of the ‘rare’. Knowing him has been one of the most prized moments of my life. It was early 1997. Those were the heady days of my activism. We had just petitioned the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) regarding the rights of the tribals vis-à-vis the National Park and the construction of the Kabini dam. Things were getting hot and the forest department had not taken kindly to us. The then Chairperson of NHRC, Justice M N Venkatachaliah had taken serious cognizance of our petition and appointed Shri Chamanlal as the Special Rapporteur to investigate into our complaint. He had come on a visit to the problem area and had called a meeting of all concerned. My first meeting with him left me wonder-struck. He seemed to know the complete background of the case and had all his facts right. He was unsparing when he found either the Government officials or myself straying away from factual truth and seemed so disciplined and stern. He was the quintessential police officer and had an extraordinary eye for detail. For a moment, he seemed to be such a stern disciplinarian that I wondered if this man actually had a ‘heart’. I was to be proved horribly wrong in the days to come.
What started off as a formal relationship slowly matured into one of the teacher and the taught. There was so much to learn from him that I looked forward to my visits to Delhi and the interactions with him. As I got to know him better, I realized how large his heart was and that there was no space for any hatred in his life at all. For a man who, as a child, has seen violence in its extreme form and had suffered the torment and pain of the partition of India and suffered its consequences personally, he holds no grudge against any person or community. On the other hand, he is one of the most value-driven persons who is the perfect humanist and strongly subscribes to the concepts of peace, freedom and a rights-based approach to human development. It is indeed a privilege that he has made Saragur and SVYM his home and spends more than half his time here now.
It was one of those meetings with the forest department and the police officials in attendance. I was outraged by the inhuman way in which the indigenous tribals were treated and was at my emotional best. I was keen on seeing justice done (my way) and found no space or respect for the negotiators from the Government’s side. Chamanlalji was also getting impatient with my stubbornness and was getting angry at my insistence that the Government punish the officials who had ill-treated the tribals. It was then he spoke sternly and adjourned the meeting for the day.
Later on he called me aside and spoke gently and empathized with my passionate concern for the tribals and their cause. And in his own mentoring way, he told “Bala, you should bend the Government, but remember never to break them.” This insight has served me well and has been one of the guiding mantras in the way I have interacted with the Government since then.