On Saturday Gujarat lost a fearless warrior for truth, Digant Oza. Veteran journalist, he spent his life digging for facts and hidden lies amidst a flurry of half truths. Till the very end.
I can not remember when I first met Digantbhai. I do remember thinking how easily he could have been mistaken for Yassar Arafat, with the mere addition of a red and white checked head cloth.
He read my article “I accuse” on the front page of the national dailies, a few days after the 2002 carnage. He called me on the phone. “Will you file a PIL against the government with me for their role in this?” Without a second thought I said yes.
Over the next few months we were to meet regularly, first in drafting the petition, then as he introduced me, one by one, to elderly Muslims of the community who had witnessed or had lost in the carnage. He opened up a world of local politics for me, always there to explain, caution, instigate, encourage. His writing was like a sabre, and his wit legendary.
The other side of him, that of the concerned environmentalist, I was to discover much later. Through his magazine on water, unfunded to all extents, a singular and valiant effort, he tried to bring serious discussions on issues relating to water, on the table. Meticulously researched, the reports also lead to a series of people’s hearings on water issues, from the Narmada to conservation, to drought. A staunch supporter of the Narmada damn, he was appalled by the transgressions in its delivery, the corruption, the wastage.
He was a diplomat too, able to gain entry in to any camp, political party of any colour. “How do you write what you do, and still have access to these people?” I used to ask him. He used to snort and say, “Because I want nothing from them”.
With some others , before the last elections he set up a series of town meetings to understand what the people of Gujarat wanted of their politicians, to prepare a people’s agenda for the State. I remember going to several and the variety of people, of all ages and walks of life, coming to share their views. A manifesto was prepared and given to each party and, of course, was neglected by them.
Whenever I wanted information about a person, or their hidden agenda, or wanted to vet an idea or person, it was to Digantbhai that I turned. Very few people today have the experience and the understanding of the workings of political and administrative circles that he had. And he knew everybody.
He wanted the right thing for Gujarat, and therefore for the country. With the runaway lies and publicity of the present government he wrote, both in Gujarti and English, a factual book on Mr. Modi called Bluff Master or lapodshankh. Every fact mentioned, upsetting as it was to the powers that are, was gleaned from the government’s own web sites, so while the government filed cases against him, threatened him and worse, his stand was unflinching.
In 2006, when, instigated by our government, some producers of Doordarshan, were joined by his daughter in burning my effigies, I saw him in pain. “I can not do anything. She has her own compunctions”, he said, knowing that the rabble rousing was financially motivated.
In many senses, with his going, and the passing a few years ago of another fearless stalwart, Batuk Vora, two of the very few un-bought out journalists of this State and country have been lost. With more and more of the media selling their souls to either corporate lucre or political persuasion, he will be sorely missed.