DP Tripathi, JNU’s original student leader and anti-Emergency crusader, dies
On his ground floor residence in Vasant Kunj, in the middle of November, D P Tripathi was in his trademark safari suit, waiting for one of his oldest and closest friends, the Nepali politician and parliamentarian, Pradeep Giri. Giri and he had known each other for over four decades, but something deeper tied them together — a deep and abiding commitment to democracy.
When Giri came, Tripathi and he reminisced about the older days of struggle — but Tripathi — or DPT, as he was popularly known — was most excited about his birthday, which he planned to celebrate in early January in one of his favourite haunts, the India International Centre. “Our generation does not have much time,” he said to me poignantly.
The time came too soon. The IIC celebration won’t happen. DPT passed away on Thursday, after a battle with ill-health over the past few years. With him ends a remarkable story in Indian politics.
DPT was originally from Uttar Pradesh, but truly emerged as a public figure when he came to Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. It was the early 1970s. Students were restive. DPT became a part of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and eventually the president of the JNU Students Union, a post which was also occupied by Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury. The Emergency kicked in, and DPT emerged as a hero of the resistance.
The police came into JNU right after the Emergency was declared on June 25, 1975, knocking on every door, looking for DPT — as he hid in hostel rooms and then in a washermen colony on Barakhamba Rod. (The washermen hailed from Sultanpur, DPT’s home district and this served as a bond.) He evaded the arrest and led the students movement in the university and beyond. But then, in September 1975, he urged the then PM Indira Gandhi’s daughter in law, Menaka Gandhi — who had come to the university to attend a class — to respect the strike of students. She was furious, the police intensified its search yet again for DPT, he went underground, but was eventually arrested in November.
In an interview to Aditi Phadnis of Business Standard, DPT was to later recall how Arun Jaitley was the first one to welcome him in Tihar — “We had been waiting for a long time. Where were you? Come, come!” It was in jail that he forged lifelong friendships with Jaitley and India’s top Opposition politicians. It also made him committed to the cause of democracy and freedom in India and elsewhere.
DPT eventually moved away from the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In the 1980s, he became a close advisor of Rajiv Gandhi, whose mother he had fought just a decade earlier. In the late 1990s, he eventually joined the Nationalist Congress Party, became a key architect of the party’s platforms and positions, and eventually became a Rajya Sabha MP from the party earlier this decade, making some of the most evocative interventions in recent parliamentary history.
But there were three threads that made his political life unusual.
The first was his deep empathy for democratic struggles elsewhere in the region, particularly Nepal. His friendship with Giri, the proximity of his home state of UP to Nepal, but more broadly the general solidarity of the Indian left and socialist movement from the time of Jayaprakash Narain and Ram Manohar Lohia with the anti monarchical struggles in Nepal ensured that DPT made Nepali democracy his own cause. He attended a historic meeting in Kathmandu in 1989-1990, which was a turning point for a pro-democracy movement.
When the country was engaged in a civil war with Maoist rebels, he did his bit to find a political solution. This opening came on February 1, 2005 — when King Gyanendra took over absolute power. Nepali political activity shifted to Delhi. And DPT became a key Convenor of the democratic front to express solidarity with the Nepali people. He also encouraged efforts of Nepali political parties, Maoists and Indian establishment to come together. It was in his house in Vasant Kunj that Maoist leaders, Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, were introduced to CPM leader Sitaram Yechury and other Indian politicians. Eventually, Maoists and Nepali democrats came together to wage a movement against an authoritarian monarch. When the Nepali Parliment has its first session, DPT was honoured as a guest on the floor of the house — an honour he would always speak of with pride. The Nepal association would stay till the end of his life. Each time Nepali political leaders visited Delhi, DPT’s house was their first port of call. In particular, former Prime Minister Prachanda would seek out DPT. In 2018, I happened to be present at one of their meetings — when Prachanda asked DPT if he had any advice for what the Nepali leadership should do to advance Nepal-India relations and the two leaders had a free and frank conversation about the trajectory of Indian and Nepali politics.
The other constant in his life was a commitment to the world of ideas. DPT was man of multiple interests, but none of it surpassed his commitment to knowledge. He engaged with academics. He convened meetings of writers and poets. He edited journals. He constantly thought of ways where socialism and democracy could merge within the new economic framework India had embarked in. He had left the communist fold, but still had deep admiration for the left — and wrote a private letter to Prakash Karar, a copy of which he shared with me, about the need for the Indian left to shed its dogmatism. He was opposed to the Hindutva project — but could understand its roots. This immersion in the world of ideas and ideology meant that for DPT, political differences were political - never personal. And that is why while DPT was never a traditional “power politician” who rose up to occupy high positions, his power came from his personal relationships and history of struggle. He could pick the phone and speak to any minister in any government, irrespective of the party in power, and make a request. At any dinner he hosted, you could be sure that leaders from across the spectrum would be present — all because of their affection for DPT.
And finally, DPT always remained committed to the idea of protest, dissent and the power of students and their right to express themselves. His house was open to all JNU students. Four decades after he left the university, student leaders asked him for advice on how to pursue their causes. He was deeply disappointed at what he saw was the effort of the BJP to change the culture of JNU.
As DPT passes away, thousands of people whose lives he touched — in his home state of Uttar Pradesh, in JNU and across universities, in Maharashtra where his party just returned to power, across Indian political theatre where he had close friends, and in Nepal — would be grieving. A rare politician, a fundamentally decent human being, a leader with empathy and a committed democrat and constitutionalist. We will all miss you DPT.