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Sunil Dutt, humanist and man of peace

Thursday 26 May 2005

Not many individuals in public life are remembered for their integrity. Actor, humanist and politician Sunil Dutt, who passed away on Wednesday in Mumbai, was one such person. The much-loved Member of Parliament from Mumbai’s northwest constituency made his mark not because of his acting brilliance or his skills in politics but because of his unerring humanism. The outpouring of grief by ordinary citizens was evidence of the place he had made for himself in the lives of thousands of people of all classes and communities. A lesser individual could have become bitter and angry given the many bumps on his road from an impoverished Partition refugee to a successful film actor to a principled politician. But Sunil Dutt crossed each hurdle and grew in stature after it. When his wife, the renowned actress, Nargis, died a painful death from cancer, Dutt took it upon himself to raise funds so that other cancer patients could receive proper treatment. When his actor son Sanjay fell into the habit of using drugs, he campaigned against drug abuse. Although he was a member of the Congress Party, he was not afraid to take a stand for his beliefs, as he did in 1993 when he resigned from Parliament after the communal riots in Mumbai in 1992-93. When his son was arrested for allegedly possessing an unlicensed weapon following the 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai, and had to spend 15 months in jail, Dutt’s secular credentials were questioned because he sought Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s help to secure Sanjay’s release from jail. But the doubters were proved wrong as Dutt continued to take a strong stand against communalism. Over the last two decades, Dutt travelled thousands of kilometres to troubled spots in Punjab, Bihar, Kashmir, and Gujarat, campaigning for communal peace.

Sunil Dutt was perhaps too good a man for the kind of politics that dominates today. Despite successfully contesting five times from the same constituency, and nurturing it the way an MP should by being available and accessible to his constituents, he did not always get the respect he deserved from his party. This was tragically evident in the last few months when the Shiv Sena MP, Sanjay Nirupam, Dutt’s arch-rival and a man who had personally insulted him, was inducted into the party. Dutt’s local co-workers revolted and made their anger evident. Instead of understanding their unease, the party rapped Dutt over the knuckles for "anti-party activities." This upset him deeply even though he said nothing about it in public. A politician of unfailing civility and equanimity, he won respect all round for taking a clear stand on issues that matter. Especially close to youth, he gave new meaning to the job of Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs. His sustained success as an elected politician shows that people do want honest, principled, and committed individuals as their representatives. The Indian polity is poorer for the loss of this outstanding humanist and democrat.

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