He was a tall man sitting in the shade of a tree. Wearing a frayed dhoti and a Khadi kurta, he was engrossed in writing while a few books lay around him. As I approached him, I noticed the books were on Mathematics. As I introduced myself, he looked up with a warm smile and sought a few minutes to wrap up what he was writing. It was, I discovered later, was one of the several text books on Mathematics that he had written.
Dr Brahma Dutt Sharma had already resigned as an IAS officer in 1981 and his tenure as the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Commissioner (1986-91) too had come to an end. But here he was, sitting under a tree in a village in Jehanabad (Bihar) attending a meeting of the poor. Loath to waste much time, a characteristic feature I grew to admire, he got busy writing his book while waiting for the people to assemble.
Sharma had almost single-handedly steered the preparation of the Bhuria Commission report, the Forest Rights Act and PESA (Panchayat Extension of Scheduled Areas Act), which enabled Gram Sabhas to govern their own resources in scheduled areas and was also instrumental for pushing through the concept of a Tribal sub plan. He had served as Vice Chancellor of the North East Hill University (NEHU) at Shillong and later as a member of the North East Council.
Single-minded, fearless, untiring and blunt to the point of being rude, Sharma did not quite endear himself to people in authority. But he displayed a singular warmth and empathy while interacting with the poor and the marginalised people.
When Maoists abducted an IAS officer — Paul Alex Menon — in Chhattisgarh some time in 2012-13, the Government enlisted his services to negotiate the release. On his return with the officer, photographs of Menon and the mediators appeared prominently in newspapers. But Dr Sharma never spoke on his experience, his rigid self-discipline keeping him away from the spotlight. It would have been tempting for any bureaucrat to milk the opportunity for personal publicity. And a number of lesser bureaucrats in the national capital and elsewhere do this regularly and effortlessly. But ‘Dr Sa’ab’ was made of different stuff.
Dr Sharma was the stuff of legends and an activist friend and President of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti (MKSS) late Dr Vinayan had spoken effusively about him. As an IAS officer, he was Deputy Commissioner of Bastar, which was then the largest district in the country. He had discovered that though the Government was paying the salary to several thousand school teachers, they hardly spent two or three days teaching in the remote areas. They would turn up only to receive their salary and then return home in towns like Jabalpur and engage in teaching children there.
The Deputy Commissioner, I was told, ordered that the wives of all the school teachers be employed in the same schools as Assistant Teachers on contract and half the salary drawn by their husbands. His reasoning was that if the wives were also employed at the same place, the school teachers, predominantly male, would have some incentive to shift to the remote areas.
The proposal was of course shot down by the Finance Department in Bhopal. Due diligence had not been exercised, it pointed out. Who would ensure that the wives were all qualified, they enquired. Dr Sharma was said to have replied that he did not need to look at their qualification because ‘every mother and a woman is a born-teacher’.
Such unconventional decisions did not endear him to people in positions of power. On another occasion, I was told, Dr Sharma ordered godowns of Food Corporation of India in the district to be opened and foodgrains distributed to the people. He could not wait for the Government to first declare a drought and then issue red cards etc , which could have taken several weeks. Arguing that he could not allow people to die of hunger, he personally supervised the distribution of the foodgrains.
This was possibly the last straw and an FIR was filed against the IAS officer by the FCI and presumably another by the state government. The charge was serious enough. But while I no longer remember if Dr Sharma was suspended for this act of his, I do remember being told that he steadfastly refused to appear in court. He had acted as an officer of the Government and he had also acted in the spirit of the rules, he had argued. So if at all someone had to defend the act, it should have been the Government, he reasoned.
A few months after we met, I received a call from him. He was in Kerala but planned to reach Patna three days later via New Delhi. He wanted me to book him a ticket on a night train to Daltonganj. The day he called happened to be Holi and the offices were closed. And it completely slipped out of my mind. I woke up to the situation when he called me from the airport. He had just landed, he said, and would reach the railway station in half an hour. It was around 6 pm and the train was to leave at 8 pm. I frantically called up friends for help and rushed to the railway station. To my surprise, the Station Master recognized Dr Sharma by name and assured me that a berth would be arranged for him. Dr Sharma wanted to travel in an ordinary sleeper class in any case.
I sighed in relief, bought a ticket and waited for him at the entrance. But there was no sign of him even at 7.45 pm. There was no mobile phone those days and when I had almost given up on him, wondering what to do, there he was, striding into the station with a blanket slung on one shoulder and a jhola on the other. To my anxious question, he explained that he had refused to pay Rs 300 demanded by cabs at the airport. He had decided to walk and took an auto rickshaw only when he realised that he might get late.
He himself lived frugally and very unlike one of the top bureaucrats. He undoubtedly inspired some of the younger officers, who would not hesitate touching his feet. But he set the bar far too high for most other people. A consistent critic of state power, the poor and the helpless will miss him.