Remembering the legendary S. R. Sankaran 1

I had the opportunity to work with the legendary S. R. Sankaran for two brief years when he was appointed as the commissioner of the Supreme Court in the right to food litigation[1].  Sankaran was a legendary ex-bureaucrat known for his commitment to the marginalised and also for his extreme simplicity and humility.  He was one of the rare people who was trusted both by the government, given his long tenure in it, and also by the Naxals who had come to know him well since the time they kidnapped him!

S. R. Sankaran

Sankaran joined us after his attempt at resolving the conflict between the Government and the Naxals in the state of Andhra Pradesh.  He had led two rounds of dialogue that once seemed likely to succeed with a meaningful resolution by that time and he led one more attempt subsequently.  These attempts failed and the movement was ultimately repressed violently in the state.

When he started working as a commissioner, my colleague and I were introduced to him with a side note that Mr. Sankaran was a highly sensitive and serious kind of a person, and that he was going through a rough time, given the failure of the talks.  We were both on tenterhooks when we met him the first time.  He had a mischievous, but a highly understated sense of humour – often self-deprecating – that left us wondering if we should laugh or not.  I think he quietly sensed our dilemma and enjoyed it.  For example, when Jean asked him during the early stages of the Right to Food Campaign if anyone in AP would be interested in taking up the campaign work, Mr. Sankaran told him, “We do not take up silly issues like mid-day meals.  We need something serious like a revolution”.

Soon we learned to relax with him and he started spending a lot of time at the office.  Navjyoti, Shonali, Sudha and I were treated with innumerable stories such as his being kidnapped by the Naxals, going “one up” with corrupt trade union leaders by secretly calling their bosses, his efforts during the two rounds of negotiations between GoAP and the Naxals, etc.

One story he relished telling was that of a Minister with GoI who told him that immigrants are a major cause of New Delhi’s problems, “I reminded him that we were both immigrants, and he did not like it”, he recollected with a child-like chuckle.  He was so incredibly humble that I wonder if he ever realized what a powerful person he was.  He dressed with utmost simplicity and never threw his weight around, leading even to comic situations.  In one case, he had to meet a minister in a five-star hotel, but the guard did not let him in since Mr. Sankaran looked so simple with his chappal and the rest of accoutrement.  Sankaran, who would not throw his weight around ultimately sneaked into the hotel for his appointment!

He got close enough with the team at the commissioner’s office to share that he got an honorary doctorate, “but no one knows about it”, he told us with a sweetness that was a trademark of Mr. Sankaran. His sweetness and sense of humour were of course combined with the gravity of someone who had been through a lot, especially the hope and despair of the negotiations with Naxals.  The creative approach of democratic engagement and dialogue as means of settling the conflict had its heady days.  The one grand project of his life did not succeed within his lifetime, but it is perhaps more relevant today than it has ever been.  I miss hearing his sane voice amidst the hysteria today.


[1] PUCL Vs. UoI and Ors [W/p 196 of 2001]

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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