Verghese Kurien, a deep appreciation

Dr Kurien was the major architect of India’s most celebrated experiment in social and economic co-operation. The institutions he helped establish, such as AMUL and NDDB, eliminated the middleman, thereby linking farmers directly to consumers

columns Updated: Dec 01, 2018 19:31 IST
Milk revolution,Anand
A motorcycle rally from Kozikode, Kerala to Anand, Gujrat in celebratration of the birth anniversary of Dr Verghese Kurien, November 24, 2017(Ravindra Joshi/HT Photo)

In February 2013, Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, gave a speech at Shri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi. He spoke at length of Gujarat’s achievements in the dairy sector. He said that his state supplied milk and milk products to Delhi, and to Singapore as well.

Listening to Mr Modi’s SRCC speech, I was struck by the fact that he had not highlighted Dr Verghese Kurien and his contributions. I thought that this CM wishing to become PM had missed an opportunity here. For Dr Kurien was from Kerala, yet had chosen to make Gujarat his karmabhumi on returning from the United States. Communist-dominated Kerala is notorious for its hostility to entrepreneurship and economic innovation; whereas Gujarat is famous for encouraging the same. Mr Modi could have used these facts to his (and his state’s) advantage. The example of a Malayali working with farmers in Gujarat to transform the nation as a whole, could have been put forward as a striking illustration of how Mr Modi’s state was hospitable to talented people and smart ideas. It would have made his own claim to being a Gujarati who wished to transform India more credible and appealing.

Dr Verghese Kurien was the major architect of India’s most celebrated experiment in social and economic co-operation. The institutions he helped establish, such as Amul and the National Dairy Development Board, eliminated the middleman, thereby linking farmers directly to consumers. They cultivated an ethic of co-operation in a country riven by individual and caste rivalries. They enormously expanded milk production, reducing dependence on imports, while enhacing the nutrition of hundreds of millions of Indians.

The contributions of this Gujarati originally from Kerala are colossal. That is why I thought it odd that Mr Modi did not praise Dr Kurien in upholding the milk miracle as a pillar of the ‘Gujarat Model’. Scholars from the state said the puzzle was easily resolved. Mr Modi, they told me, did not get along with Dr Kurien. I was referred to an incident from 2004, where the two men shared a podium, and Mr Modi berated Dr Kurien for seeking acclaim from the West and for allegedly being close to the Congress party. Eight years later, Dr Kurien died. The Chief Minister issued a tweet mourning his demise. However, when the great milkman’s body was kept for viewing at Amul’s Sardar Patel Hall, the CM did not come to pay his respects to a person who had brought more credit to Gujarat than anyone since Mahatma Gandhi or Sardar Patel. On the same day, Mr Modi inaugurated a building at Nadiad, merely twenty kilometres away. So he could have certainly have come if he so chose. His not doing so caused dismay among the staff of Amul, and to other admirers of Dr Kurien as well.

Narendra Modi’s longstanding neglect of Dr Kurien’s role in the making of his state and our country is unfortunate. And the slanderous comments recently made about Dr Kurien by a BJP leader in Gujarat are absolutely despicable. This man, who claimed that Dr Kurien diverted money to convert tribals to Christians, is not a loose cannon or fringe element, but a former state minister once in charge of the agriculture and animal husbandry departments. His falsehoods have sparked widespread outrage on social media, and a dignified rebuttal from Dr Kurien’s daughter. Yet it is a matter of shame and sadness that no senior BJP leader has sought to chastise their party colleague for spreading hateful lies about one of the greatest of modern Indians.

As someone who followed Dr Kurien’s work for many years, I can testify that he was human, and thus fallible. He should have retired earlier than he did; and perhaps delegated more than he did. Yet these weaknesses pale altogether when compared with his character and contributions. He himself always spoke with great affection about Tribhuvandas Patel, the farmers’ leader who persuaded him to stay in Gujarat and help build what became Amul. In his life and his work, Dr Kurien consistently put the people of the country above himself, his family, his community, and his state.

I was never formally introduced to Dr Kurien, but have two memories I would like to share. In about 2005 or 2006 I was taking a flight out of Mumbai airport. The queue at security was long, very long. An elderly man, carrying his suitcase, joined the queue just ahead of me. One of us offered to carry his bag, another to take him upfront and tell the guards why this particular passenger was utterly, indeed uniquely, deserving of special treatment. Dr Kurien shook his head, and quietly declined both requests. He was a passenger and a citizen, and would keep it that way.

Dr Kurien died in 2012. Five years later I was in the town of East Lansing, speaking at the Michigan State University. I began by praising my great compatriot who was an MSU alumni. After my talk, I was told that, in grateful acknowledgement of what he had done to bring credit to his alma mater, the University had installed a bust of Dr Verghese Kurien.

The next day I walked over to the department where Dr Kurien had once studied. There I took my first ever selfie, not with a living person but with his likeness in stone. For I knew I might never be back in East Lansing, and knew too that long after his communal traducers had been forgotten, this man who lived for others would be remembered in Gujarat, India, and the world.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 01, 2018 19:31 IST