What a man he was! Was he a bureaucrat, jurist, administrator, philanthropist, doer, beggar, visionary or a missionary? When I was at the Lodi Crematorium in Delhi to bid him farewell, I did not see a single dry eye. Death at 88 is not unusual, but perhaps about 30–40 young girls from Him Jyoti School who had come all the way from Dehradun did not realise this. Each girl was sobbing as if their patriarch had gone. To them, Sudarshan Agarwal was their parent — everything.
It was in 1974 that I met Sudarshan who was President of RC Delhi. Delhi and Chandigarh were in the same district then. That was the start of my journey with him.
Sudarshan became Governor for the year 1978–79, a distinguished class as I could see, as I was then the International Assembly Discussion Leader. The group was fortunate to have one of Rotary’s icons as President — Sir Clem Renouf. Sudarshan became RI Director in 1987–89 and was a member of the RI Constitution and Byelaws Committee in 1991–94.
He excelled in any field he chose, but his focus was not the Rotary ladder. Be it Rotary programmes or any cause he undertook, he would execute passionately, and ardently as a mission.
It was the time when the Rotary world was fully committed to the PolioPlus programme and Sudarshan wholeheartedly embraced polio eradication. He was then Secretary General of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian Parliament; India was not making much progress on the polio front. He used his contacts with seniors in the Govt of India as well as Parliament and prompted some members in the Rajya Sabha to raise questions on “why there is lethargy in the polio eradication programme”. This resulted in the Prime Minister, who also held the Health portfolio, to give an assurance that a new strategy was being formed. Around that time, Dr Harsh Vardhan, Health Minister of the Delhi Government, was contemplating the NID (National Immunisation Day) strategy. Sudarshan met him, and they joined together, which meant Rotary and the Delhi government joining together. This was the beginning of the NID procedure for the whole country. Sudarshan can truly be called one of the pioneers of polio-free India.
Retiring from Rajya Sabha as Secretary General, he was appointed to the National Human Rights Commission as a member, a rank and status equal to a Supreme Court Judge. Following completion of his tenure, he took up the cause of building the Rotary Blood Bank in Delhi which was inaugurated in March 2002. This blood bank till today is regarded as the best in the country, and stands as a monumental example of his tenacity to serve humanity, while enhancing Rotary’s image.
Sudarshan’s creativity struck a peak with vision, mission and action on Jan 7, 2003, while he was traveling on a train with his wife Usha and friends from Delhi to Dehradun to take over as Governor of the State of Uttaranchal (now Uttarakhand). He shared his vision with his friends on the train, and with me, as I arrived in Dehradun from Chandigarh. He wanted to announce a corpus of ₹25 lakh, income from which would be spent for scholarships for talented students, especially girls from Uttaranchal, for higher technical studies. He collected ₹25 lakh from his friends, each contributing ₹1 lakh. And announced this after the oath taking ceremony, committing himself to the State. Thus was born the Him Jyoti Institution for education, and today it is worth about ₹40 crore. This school has 280 girls from extremely poor families, producing 35 bright students every year, many of them reaching the highest level of education and professional competence. Indeed, it is transformation from crude raw material like coal to diamonds. In addition, a vocational training centre takes up 100 students from economically marginalised families and provides different skills through a six-month course. All of them get employed or become entrepreneurs. These institutions were like a divine call to him, and showed the man in action.
Sudarshan used to call himself a professional beggar. Whatever service he took up, he had the genius to raise the funds to execute it. Yes, money was important as a resource but the legacy he believed in was character and faith. He was one of the founding trustees of “Service to Humanity Trust” and through it motivated and recognised those who fought against corruption. Anna Hazare was one of the first to be thus recognised, and at a time when he was not that well-known.
The late Past RI Director was addicted to Rotary’s “Four-Way-Test” and he once told me that as Governor of Uttaranchal, when he had to decide on a petition for mercy from death sentence, he used the Four-Way-Test to take a decision and made the recommendation to the State Government. He would quote the Four-Way-Test and Rotary’s philosophy in his addresses or messages on Independence or Republic Day.
This super human being had traits of a normal human, and one of his passion was shopping when he travelled. Once we were together in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and he persuaded me to go with him to the market. What would he buy, I wondered! Lo and behold, he bought sets of crockery! But he was afraid of his wife Usha as she would always tell him that there was no space in the house. When we returned to Delhi, I heard him tell his driver to keep the packed crockery in the car, and not tell Bibiji (Usha), and the next morning he would take it to office. Most of the time, he would give away as gifts what he had bought. Giving was his habit and he used to say, “Give more in order to get more.”
Well-known playwright and journalist Douglas William Jerrold had said, “He was so benevolent, merciful that, in his mistaken passion, he would hold an umbrella over a duck in a shower of rain.” This fits so well for Sudarshan’s nature and culture.
That giant of a man has left a legacy of benevolence, completion, helpfulness and goodness with Usha, his son Rajiv and daughter Ritu and the rest of his family, his friends and the society he lived in. The sobbing girls of Him Jyoti School and generations like them seeking education there would not be left alone. The Legend lives on.
The writer is a past RI President