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Memories of another Gujarat

By Anil Nauriya

Sohaila Habib and Kantibhai Hathi who died recently represented the now seemingly forgotten values of that finer, older, perhaps immortal, Gujarat.

AS THE coarseness in Gujarat imposes itself upon us, an older, decent Gujarat appears to fade in front of our eyes. Two personalities who died recently represented the now seemingly forgotten values of that finer, older, perhaps immortal, Gujarat.

On November 17, 2002, Sohaila Habib passed away in Aligarh aged 94. Active almost to the end, she probably died while taking a nap. Sohaila was the last surviving heir of Abbas Tyabji (1852-1936), the Grand Old Man of Gujarat, who had succeeded Mahatma Gandhi as the national leader in the civil disobedience movement of 1930 after he was arrested. With the departure of this delightful and affectionate old lady, there is now probably no other person alive who had a parent born prior to the Great Indian Revolt of 1857.

Sohaila was brought up in Baroda where her father was a High Court judge before he became active in the national movement for Independence. Her mother, Ameena Tyabji, too was in the freedom movement, a prominent member of the Congress and an educationist. As a young girl, Sohaila was thus witness to some of the most momentous events in the history of India's struggle for freedom. Her father had given the lead to the city of Baroda in the boycott and burning of foreign cloth in the 1920s and she had vivid memories of it. The bullock cart was loaded with foreign garments, onto which were loaded all her mother's "best Irish linen, bedspreads, table covers... ", her father's "angarkha, chowghas and English suits" and Sohaila's own "favourite caps of silk and velvet", all given to be burnt.

Then followed the Ahmedabad session of the Congress at the end of 1921, presided over with great dignity by Hakim Ajmal Khan. Sohaila was present with her parents and much of her family. Her elder sister Raihana sang at the session, a performance long remembered.

Sohaila had travelled to Burma because more than once her father, Abbas Tyabji, was asked to supervise the affairs of the Indian National Congress there.

She moved to Uttar Pradesh and in 1927 married Mohammed Habib who had studied in Dehradun and Aligarh. Mahatma Gandhi sent a letter to her 75-year-old father, congratulating the couple and adding: "Sohaila must remember that she is not going to be married to become a mere doll and become lost to the country. But she would be expected, like her grey-headed young father... to serve the country with the same devotion that her father is doing; and if her husband is at all lukewarm, to touch him with her spirit... "

In another letter, Gandhi wrote hoping that Sohaila, "by sheer force of exemplary character breaks down the wretched purdah in Lucknow and the neighbourhood". Adding, "and of course the propaganda of khaddar is the least I expect her to do".

Habib, who later became a distinguished historian, had started his teaching career in the 1920s with the nationalist Jamia Millia which was then still based in Aligarh. When the Jamia Millia moved to Delhi Habib stayed on in Aligarh. The famous historian, Irfan Habib, is the son of Sohaila and Mohammed Habib.

Kantilal Lalshankar Hathi passed away in Baroda on November 25, 2002, aged 88. Kantibhai, as he was known, was a prominent freedom fighter and lawyer. Jailed during the Quit India movement, he made a brief foray into post-Independence party politics and did a stint in Government as Parliamentary secretary in the late 1940s in the then Saurashtra State with U. N. Dhebar, who later became Congress president, as Chief Minister. Having been actively involved in the unification of the more than 200 princely states which comprised Saurashtra, Kantibhai had been elected to the Saurashtra legislature from Manavdar.

He started practice in Rajkot at a time when plaints drafted by M. K. Gandhi before the end of the 19th century still circulated in the State. They were, Kantibhai used to say, models of drafting.

He moved to Delhi in the 1950s and started practice before the Supreme Court. In those days the Supreme Court was housed in one part of Parliament House and Kantibhai was one of the few Agents (approximate equivalent of what is now known as an Advocate on Record) who appeared before it. Kantibhai and his elder brother, Jaisukhlal Hathi (who served as Union Minister and was later a Governor of Punjab), had both been associated with the Textile Labour Association founded in Gujarat under inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi.

That connection ran like a thread through the rest of their lives. Jaisukhlal Hathi went on to become Minister in charge of Labour, while Kantibhai represented the interests of the labour in virtually every important case that presented itself before the Supreme Court till he finally faded into retirement from the early 1990s.

Always clad in a smart khadi bush shirt and baggy khadi trousers, Kantibhai lived a life of quiet commitment. He appeared rarely (probably never) for the management side. He represented the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) since its inception in 1956. But if ever the LIC had a dispute with its own unions, it kept it, so far as I can recall, out of Kantibhai's chamber. He was an expert on land reforms in Gujarat and there was no way one could be in his chamber and not know about Barkhalidars and other sundry Gujarati tenures.

Both Kantibhai and his brother were close to Hafiz Mohammed Ibrahim, the famous Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh who was also in Jawaharlal Nehru's Cabinet. Hafiz's second son, Atiqur Rahman (who had also been a participant in the Quit India movement) had a significant Supreme Court practice and was part of the Hathis' law firm till he died in 1971.

Panchayati Raj was close to Kantibhai's heart and he once (I think jointly with Jaisukhbhai) wrote a book about it. What happened to it ultimately is difficult to say. When he died last month, Kantibhai was still working on a book, this time on the federal structure.

He had great physical courage. Some three decades ago a man with a knife entered the Supreme Court and assaulted Justice Grover, while lunging towards the Chief Justice of India, Hidayatullah. Having reached the top of the wooden dais behind which the judges sit, the assailant turned to assault the CJI. Just then, Kantibhai, who happened to be sitting in the front row, reacted quickly enough to pounce on the assailant's leg and pull him back, thus saving Justice Hidayatullah from injury and worse.

A mountain of a man, he represented the best traditions of the bar, in courtesy towards all and kindness and affection towards the younger members of the profession. Widely respected both by the bench and the bar, he had a clean practice; his methods were open, friendly and honest. Indigent clients were always helped, no matter how much his staff grumbled at having to work on matters that yielded them no return. Sohaila and Kantilal have moved on. But can the bloodletting of 2002 wash away their footprints?

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