Why Irawati Karve’s three questions about the life of Bhishma are ever so relevant today

In her book Yuganta, a commentary on the Mahabharata, the eminent anthropologist of Indian society, Irawati Karve, has this to say about Bhishma. Discussing his life of contradictions, his abduction of the three princesses of Kashi, his unwillingness to accept Vyasa’s offer to retire with Satyavati in the forest before the war, his agonies on the battlefield, and his famous discourse (what she calls “banalities”) on dharma, Karve asks three questions about his life that are worth considering today: (i) Why did he accept generalship of the army when he was 90 years old? (She had calculated this figure) (ii) As one who “was no great warrior”, except for his mythical battle with Parashurama on which his reputation rests, why did he accept generalship of the Kaurava army? And (iii) as a Kshatriya who had discharged his duties (given his nephews the training they required to be kings) why did he not relinquish power as one was required to do? “This rule applied to ordinary family men immersed in their own affairs. Did Bhishma think that he was immune because he belonged to that category of men who sacrifice the self and live only for others? Did he feel, as such people do, that he could never give up his responsibilities but must die in harness?” (p21)

I was reminded of Karve’s discussion on Bhishma when I read about E Sreedharan’s decision, at 88 years, to enter party politics through the BJP. The media interview where he offered himself to be the chief minister candidate of the BJP in Kerala was both astounding and puzzling. It threw up several issues that I feel compelled to discuss here.

What does the decision of one of India’s greatest engineers signify, both philosophically and for the nation? What does it mean when a man whose service to the nation as a railway engineer is without equal, who has received almost every award the nation has to offer, chooses, in his 89th year, to enter the messy field of party politics? When does one “relinquish power”, as Karve asks of Bhishma, and retire to a different life of service? Does Sreedharan believe that he still has a public role to play? Why party politics?

There are three aspects of his public life, culled from the internet, that I am interested in discussing because they tell us something about the human condition. At the outset, let me rubbish any suggestion that he did this for personal gain, a nomination to the Rajya Sabha or a Bharat Ratna. I believe that he deserves a Bharat Ratna for the tasks already accomplished so he does not need to do more. I also believe the Bharat Ratna should be given to a modern-day rishi. I thought he was one. After his decision to join the BJP, I’m not so sure.

Let me, therefore, assess his life at three levels: As an engineer, a public servant, and an egoist. Although I shall discuss each separately, aspects of one infiltrate the other.

As an engineer, Sreedharan was peerless. His bio-note on the web mentions that he succeeded in every engineering task he accepted. In 46 days, he repaired the Rameswaram bridge that had been washed away in a cyclone. He built the Kolkata Metro. He led the construction of the first ship, MV Rani Padmini, at Cochin Shipyard. He constructed the Konkan Railway in seven years. It runs north to south for 760 miles through 93 tunnels, using the cut and fill method, mostly on the Western Ghats. Other railway tracks run east to west. He constructed 150 bridges and did all this bypassing the standard construction procedures in the Railway manual. I had opposed the route chosen, though not the project, but more on that later. And then he built the Delhi Metro which changed Delhi, not just its infrastructure of mass public transport but its social life. The story I Iike best is how the Metro has enabled young girls from the walled city to travel to Connaught Place because, unlike travelling by DTC, it is now safe for them to use public transport. All his projects were within budget and according to schedule. No time or cost overruns.

On his life as a public servant, let me discuss just two aspects. The first is his concern with the safety of workers, disabled persons, women, and the elderly. The Konkan Railway project established the compulsory wearing of helmets by labourers at building sites. This has now become best practice everywhere but, I think, was first adopted at the Konkan Railway. This concern for safety can also be seen in the Delhi Metro with its lifts, escalators, reserved seats for the elderly and the disabled. These protections and conveniences are embedded in the design of the metro coaches, stations, utilities, and upkeep. Salaam, sir.

The second aspect is his legal battle with the Railway Ministry which, after his retirement, sought to deduct his pension from his Delhi Metro salary. He won the case in the Delhi High Court, thereby adding two clarifications to the service rules. His job at the Delhi Metro, according to the judgment, was (i) an “appointment” and not “re-employment” and (ii) his salary was being paid not from the Consolidated Fund of India but from the Delhi Metro, another legal body, and hence his pension should not be deducted.

These two aspects of his personality have a bearing on his decision to join party politics. From the engineer comes the belief that all societal problems have engineering solutions. Design a system, write maintenance protocols, train the operatives, establish time and cost schedules, create penalty structures and the social problem will go away. He showed this in all his engineering projects. I had opposed his Konkan Railway route because it was going through the most ecologically sensitive and demographically congested zones in Goa, both of which would be negatively impacted by the bunds he was building to maintain the incline of 1:160 needed for high-speed trains. We protested. He did not listen. We are now paying the price. Democratic protest was then not a part of his engineering mindset. Politics in India, Dr Sreedharan, is and must be noisy, messy and built on compromise. Only authoritarian systems, such as China today, are run by engineers. How does he believe he can deliver outcomes in a Kerala full of argumentative citizens, without democracy? Is he being naïve or arrogant or both to think that his engineering solutions will solve the problem of “love jihad” and “beef eating”, the two concerns he voiced in the media interview?

That is why the third aspect of his personality is so significant. His decision shows that his ego remains undiminished by age. Undiminished egos produce national problems. At this age, in our Indian system, we metaphorically enter vanaprastha where social responsibilities are handed over to the next generation so that we can retire to contemplate the cosmic drama in which we have played a bit part. In vanaprastha it is the stochastic protocols, established by the bigger engineer up there, that we must meditate upon. This is what makes Irawati Karve’s three questions ever so relevant today.

The writer is the DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University. He has recently edited, with Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Keywords for India, Bloomsbury, UK, 2020. Views are personal

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