Published: 15th July 2021
How Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan was attacked as an ABVP student activist, why he carries three pens and is called Muku Bhai
Dharmendra Pradhan was National Secretary of ABVP for two terms. He joined the organisation in 1983 and had organised protests and rallies during his student years
On May 16, 1996, former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as India's Minister of Human Resource Development. He held the position, along with the country's Prime Ministership for a short duration — 16 days, if you're a stickler for details — before the government fell. This was probably one of the few instances in the country, where a politician, who entered mainstream politics through student activism handled the all-important ministry that was in charge of the country's schools, colleges, universities and everything else related to education.
Twenty-five years later, a few months after the ministry was rechristened as the Ministry of Education, India had an education minister who rose to prominence from student politics, once again. The new education minister Dharmendra Pradhan was not just part of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's students wing), but also served as the organisation's National Secretary, twice, between November 1994 to 1997.
Pradhan during his student days (Pics: Sourced)
A few days after he took charge, we spoke to a few of his contemporaries in the ABVP, who told us about his time in the organisation, how he was proactive, resilient, took part actively in protests and always lent a helping hand to others. This is probably why Prashant Rout, the Principal of RMD Degree College, Bhubaneswar thinks that under Pradhan's regime, the students will have more scope for dissent. "It is natural for students to be anti-establishment. They have the right to protest, but the protests have to be non-violent and democratic," says Rout, adding that Pradhan and his allies never instigated violence in any of the protests they staged. Rout was Pradhan's junior in Utkal University, where the latter was a student of MA Anthropology.
Speaking of this, he recalls an incident of paper-leak in Odisha in 1997, when Pradhan was the ABVP National Secretary and was just about to join the Bharatiya Janata Party. "We staged a protest against the Odisha government, in front of the secretariat. Around 1,500 students joined us there," he says. He said that while the protest was peaceful, the police had charged against the activists. "We were quite scared. Pradhan has badly beaten up that time. He had a few fractures too," he says.
An injured Pradhan (Pic: Prashant Rout)
This wasn't an isolated incident. Rout shares a poster with us which has a photograph of a much younger, visibly injured Pradhan. He tells us the story behind this. "Elections in universities often got violent, owing to the ruling party's involvement. During one such incident, knowing that Pradhan was set to win the university elections, the Janata Dal goons had beaten him up, brutally. He is alive today, only out of sheer luck," he says, recalling his student days.
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Pradhan always carried three pens
Sudipta Kumar Ray, the Odisha BJP spokesperson takes us a few decades back in time. Ray was Pradhan's senior in college and the duo worked together first in the ABVP and then in the BJP. "I first met him in 1985 during an ABVP training camp. He joined the organisation in 1983," says Ray. The duo has been good friends since then.
Pradhan (third from left) during an ABVP Odisha event (Pic: Sourced)
He tells us how Pradhan worked hard and did a good lot of 'homework' before every meeting and presented plans to popularise the organisation in Odisha. "He always carried a red pen, a blue pen and a black one with him. He would use them to mark specific parts of documents and analyse them. He took his work quite seriously," he says. He remembers how Pradhan started activism in his first year of college itself. "While most people cast their votes for the first time at 18, he started fighting polls by then," he laughs.
Nicknames and more: The mystery behind Muku
Ray, along with most of his friends and fellow activists from Odisha fondly call Pradhan 'Muku'. "It is an Odia thing. Almost everyone has a nickname. There is no reason behind it," he says. "Also, Odias address each other 'Bhai' as a sign of respect. Pradhan followed suit. He never failed to address me or others as Bhai," he says, adding that the minister has always been quite humble and never hesitated in seeking advice. He also remembers how Pradhan has always taken part in the famous Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra every year and he always insisted on walking the distance.
He remembers their trips to Talcher, Pradhan's hometown, where all of them stayed with Pradhan's parents - former union minister Debendra Pradhan and his wife Basanta Manjari Pradhan. "His mother would cook for us and take care of us like we were all her children," he says. Ray and a few other activists currently and formerly associated with the ABVP told us that the minister's wife Mridula Pradhan also was part of the ABVP for a long time. "She left activism after she got married," says Ray.
Pradhan addressing a gathering
There were dark times as well. Rout takes us back to a time where Pradhan was hospitalised, after he caught both dengue and cerebral malaria simultaneously. "His condition was quite critical and was unconscious for days. So, a few of us stayed with him in the hospital. He regained his consciousness on a particularly cold night, at around 1.30 am. I remember that I was sleeping on the floor without a blanket to cover me. But when I woke up, I found that I was sleeping comfortably with a blanket covering me. Pradhan woke up in the night to see me shiver, so despite being ill, he gave me his blanket," he says.
READ ALSO: ABVP student leader attacked Rakesh Tikait convoy in Alwar to garner publicity
The hike and what came after
Before taking charge as the Minister of Education and the Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Pradhan was the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas. It's never easy to head that ministry when fuel prices are shooting up across the country. When we asked Ray about how well his dear Muku Bhai had handled the crisis, in his opinion, he said that he had also raised the same concern with the minister a few weeks back. "We had a discussion on this recently. Pradhan was calm throughout. He then explained that the pandemic demands more money and that it was difficult to slash prices at a time like this," he says. "This is also part of a larger plan to make India a 'gasless economy'. After a few years, things will get better," he says.