Scientist and socio-political activist Dr. Swati passes away

She had worked extensively with Dalits, Adivasis, farmers and workers all the while championing scientific temper as well

Social Activist

Dr. Swati, a highly respected social activist passed away after a battle with Multiple Myeloma on May 2, 2020 at 8:30 PM at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) Hospital, Varanasi. She was the Vice-President, Samajwadi Jan Parishad (SJP) and Member, Secretariat, All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE). She was also the co-founder of Samta Sangathan along with leaders like Kishen Patnaik, Bhai Vaidya, Jugal Kishore Raibir, Sachchidanand Sinha and various student activists in the 1980s.

She is highly respected for her grassroots work in helping Dalits, Adivasis, farmers and workers secure their rights. She was also a vociferous proponent of scientific temper, being a scientist herself. It was her commitment to education that led her to become a founding member of the AIFRTE. Dr. Swati was also a committed feminist and helped establish the Nari Ekta Manch.

Here is a brief summary of her inspiring life and work.

Education and Scientific Work

Born in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh on April 21 1948 in a Bengali family, Dr. Swati passed B.Sc. (Physics) with a gold medal from the Kamala Raja Girls PG College, Gwalior in 1967. She completed her M.Sc. in Physics from IIT-Bombay in 1969 and Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of Pittsburgh, USA in 1974-75. Unlike most of the contemporary young Indians with Ph.D. from western universities, Dr. Swati was yearning to return and join the people’s struggles for building a socialistic society.

Ignoring the lucrative academic offers in the USA, she returned to India after her Ph.D. and initially taught at Roorkee University. In 1979, Dr. Swati joined the Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Benaras Hindu University (BHU) in Physics where she continued to teach and research for the more than 30 years, until she retired in 2013 as Associate Professor.

Although Dr. Swati was deeply engaged in grass-roots socio-political action since the early 1990s, she retained her passion for science and even started her teaching and research in an entirely new field, i.e. Bio-informatics in 2005. Publishing about 35 research papers in international journals, she played a pivotal role in establishing the Department of Bio-informatics in BHU and guided Ph.D. scholars who later distinguished themselves with research. One of her research papers on the structural changes in microbial RNA appeared only last year, even as she was fulfilling her dual responsibilities as a senior office-bearer in both SJP and AIFRTE. She has also been a Visiting Professor at JNU and IIIT-Hyderabad.

Political Engagement

Notably, Dr. Swati returned from the U.S. in the midst of the politically dynamic and vibrant post-emergency period. She soon came in touch with the ongoing socialist movement. When leaders like Kishen Patnaik, Bhai Vaidya, Jugal Kishore Raibir, Sachchidanand Sinha and various student activists came together in 1980 to establish a grass-roots movement of the oppressed classes and castes, Dr. Swati became one of the founding members of the group, viz. Samta Sangathan. In this capacity, she primarily worked among adivasis, dalits, farmers and workers in different parts of the country. When grass-roots leaders like Sunil and Raj Narayan were jailed in Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh, she took a long-leave from her university job to mobilize people, moving from village to village.

Dr. Swati provided an important feminist dimension to the movement in Varanasi, helping establish Nari Ekta Manch, which brought together women from all classes and castes, taking up issues of women prisoners, domestic violence, dowry deaths and others. As part of a socialist teachers’ group, she participated in university-level movements and was elected as the Vice-President of the BHU Teacher’s Association. She also taught the underprivileged children in Varanasi’s Sundar Bagiya area.

In 1995, when Samta Sangathan joined other organisations to establish SJP – a political party committed to economic decentralization, alternative socialist development model and an egalitarian society – Dr Swati joined the Party’s secretariat and continued to work as one of its leading figures, at both the state and national levels. As an avid scholar and critical thinker, she raised questions related to women’s participation in politics and wrote articles for the Party’s political organs like Samayik Varta and Samta Era. She also contributed to the people’s science movements with her critical insights into how science could be used for people’s welfare, rather than being used by capitalism to exacerbate profiteering, oppression and subjugation.

Following the Babri Masjid Demolition in December 1992, Dr, Swati devoted her energy substantially to resist the communal divisive forces.

Contributions to Education Movement

In 2009, the SJP became one of the founder-members of All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE). Although the SJP was then represented in AIFRTE’s Presidium by Sunil, a JNU post-graduate and grass-roots leader of tribals and other deprived sections, Dr. Swati played a pioneering role in mobilizing support from several states for AIFRTE programmes, especially for the 2010 Parliament Rally. Following Sunil’s untimely demise in April 2014, AIFRTE invited both Dr. Swati and Aflatoonji to join AIFRTE’s National Executive. In February 2018, she joined the AIFRTE Secretariat. Since then, she has become one of the pillars of the Secretariat, ensuring that every proposed action plan and decision shall be subjected to her critical appraisal.

Given Dr. Swati’s visionary approach and mobilisational leadership, AIFRTE’s movement for Common Education System and entirely free education from ‘KG to PG’, based on equality and social justice, has acquired new dimensions. She mobilized SJP units in different parts of the country to work in their respective areas in support of AIFRTE’s core agenda of Common School System from ‘KG to Class XII’. Two successive developments shaped Dr. Swati’s growing role in the education movement, even before she joined the Secretariat. First, in August, 2015, AIFRTE gave a call to build a nation-wide people’s movement to seek withdrawal of Govt. of India’s ‘offer’ of Higher Education from WTO-GATS. She responded by organizing a well-attended anti-WTO conference in Varanasi. Second, in April 2016, AIFRTE organized a National Assembly at Allahabad to demand nation-wide implementation of the historic Allahabad High Court Order (August, 2015). According to the aforesaid Order, all those receiving any kind of funds from the U.P. Govt. Treasury (salaries, honoraria, contract fees, consultation fees or otherwise) would be required to send their children to the government schools, irrespective of status or otherwise. Dr. Swati mobilized people from all over India, particularly from U.P., to participate in the national Assembly. Similarly, in the Hunkaar Rally (February 2019), she ensured that even the people from tribal hinterlands were represented.   

Languages and Society 

Dr. Swati wrote in both English and Hindi with equal comfort and also spoke in Bangla and Odiya fluently. After participating in a seminar in Nagaland three years ago on protecting and advancing its 16 odd languages, she surmised that “as long as the society is ‘classed’ (or divided in castes), the languages shall also remain ‘classed’ and divided in ‘castes’! Hence, the need for an alternative pedagogy for reconstruction of Indian society along socialistic and humane path, she would contend. Her commitment to mother tongue as medium of education was deeply challenged when the U.P. Govt. decided to convert 5,000 Hindi-medium Primary Schools into English-medium schools. She had no option but to build a campaign against the decision that would lead to massive exclusion.       

Dr. Swati leaves behind a rare yet inspirational legacy, one of pursuit of science and scientific temper along with involvement in active politics and struggle for equality and justice in society. She will me missed and her memory cherished forever. 



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