Forty years back a young scholar with a fresh PhD in Physics from Delhi University took a train to Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh. It was to be a turning point in the life of Vinod Raina, for this short train journey was to transform him into a lifetime social activist, campaigner and educationist in the true sense. He left behind the glamour world of theoretical Physics to plunge into the struggle to transform society through the universalization of access to education and knowledge.
Vinod Raina passed away after a brave four-year battle with cancer in Delhi this past September 12. The democratic movements in India have lost a comrade. This is how, perhaps, he would have best liked to be remembered. A comrade who was clear in his partisanship towards science, towards knowledge and its free access, towards the values of democracy that shuns the poisonous influence of sectarian and fundamentalist politics.
Vinod’s lifelong passion was education. His train journey to Hoshangabad was the beginning of his association with the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme. He was to later be part of founding Eklavya, a path breaker in the landscape of science teaching programmes in the country. Vinod’s vision and intellectual sweep ensured that initiatives that he was involved in did not remain limited as small NGO programmes. Eklavya soon became an example of how education can be both joyful and liberating, and its success left its mark on teaching methodologies across the country. His vision was always much larger, he set value to the transformative potential of education. Perhaps he would agree himself that the culmination of his life’s work was the enactment of the Right to Education Act by the Indian Parliament in 2009. The RTE Act was very dear to Vinod and he fought relentlessly to shape the Act and to ensure a consensus around it.
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984 saw Vinod in the forefront of the struggle for justice for the victims of the worst corporate crime in the history of India. Vinod’s interest in using smaller struggles into larger mobilization for societal transformation led him to be one of the co-founders of the Peoples Science Movement in India. He remained a key leader of the All India Peoples Science Network, formed in 1987, right till he left us all. It was natural that Vinod was one of the activists of the Peoples Science Movement who was later to contribute to the building of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) in 1990. Vinod served as the national General Secretary of the BGVS for several years and became one of the most powerful voices of the huge literacy movement that swept across the country in the 1990s. When the Government of India’s interest in the total literacy programme started waning and the programme became bureaucratized, Vinod helped develop the BGVs’s ‘Jeevanshala’ and ‘Gyan Vigyan Vidyalaya’ programmes. Both these programmes were designed to equip local communities to intervene effectively in school education, especially in areas where the infrastructure for education was weak or non-existent.
Vinod remained rooted in his commitment to local struggles for democracy and rights throughout his life. While science and education were his first loves, he became a part of the environment movement and was one of the loudest voices speaking for the victims of capitalist development, who were forced out of their lands and lost their livelihoods. The Narmada Bachao Andolan, the anti-nuclear struggles in many parts of the country, and many other people’s movements found in Vinod a tireless fighter and a comrade in arms.
Vinod would say that all his later day work was rooted in what he learnt from the simple village people in Hoshangabad district. He was to use this knowledge to work on a canvas that was truly global. Through Jubilee South, he became a crusader against the unjust global policies of the rich countries, and was in the forefront of the global struggle to cancel the unjust debts that were forced on poor developing countries. He was, for long, an International Council member of the World Social Forum and remained one of its prominent voices till his death. He was also one of the founders of the global Forum for Science and Democracy.
Vinod was a wonderful orator, both in Hindi and English – he had a way with words that could convert the most cynical opponents into believers of social transformation. He was also an accomplished singer and his melodious voice would often lift the spirit of activists as they gathered together at the end of a long and tiring day.
The Peoples Science Movement, the Literacy and Education movements, numerous people’s movements – all shall miss Vinod’s physical presence. But comrades such as Vinod do not die, they remain alive through their work and in the minds and the struggles of people he worked with.