Friday, February 12, 2021

Courage of Bhushan Vidyarthi

 BHUSHAN VIDYARTHI 1937-2021

Printers to the Second Liberation 
By SALIM LONE

[This is a longer version of the 1,000-word article the Nation published today. 
“The widespread harassment of media and journalists is well known but it was a printer, Colouprint, which was the most repeatedly harassed and persecuted for two decades.”  

On January 13, 1994, 200 security agents descended on Colouprint, one of Kenya’s renowned printing houses. It was renowned not only for the quality of its productions but because its owners, the Vidyarthis, frequently risked their business and even their freedom for a cause they believed in deeply: a free, independent press. 

The police raid was to seize copies of opposition leader Kenneth Matiba’s new book “Kenya – Return to Reason,” which detailed massive corruption in President Daniel arap Moi’s inner circle and called on the people to rise and reject the government. 

Colouprint workers alerted Mr. Matiba even before police entered the premises, and within no time, Mr. Matiba was on the scene berating the policemen for doing the regime’s dirty work while his security people whisked away Colourprint director Sudhir Vidyarthi from a side door to his country home in Banana Hill. As we will see later, this was one of the more benign raids on Colourprint!  

In our deeply political nation, where the main goal of the elite is to keep their own in power, the media’s perennial dance with the authorities evokes intense interest, but little attention is paid to printers who also play a pivotal role. Media and journalists do take occasional political risks on serious sensitive matters, as that is necessary to their commercial or professional success. 
But in Kenya, printers are essentially businesspeople and hence loathe to risk losing their established enterprises or their freedom by supporting those challenging entrenched power (unless of course for future advantage). The vast majority of Colourprint’s “controversial” printing jobs were for under-resourced aspirants who had no chance whatsoever chance of forming a government amid the “democratic” dictatorship that ruled us then. Now of course, there are few aspirants who fight on a platform tackling the woes of the poor or even decreasing inequality.  Which is why the Vidyarthi commitment and courage is so exceptional.   

Before delving into this issue, a bit more, let me celebrate the remarkable life of Bushan Vidyarthi, the former head of Colouprint who left us a week ago. His was a life devoted to service to community and country. He was the most decent, the most caring, and the most generous person I ever knew, and if ever I had to choose another persona, it would be Bhushan’s. He had a heart of gold and would find a way to help anyone in need. He never spoke ill of anyone, nor did anyone ever complain to me about Bhushan. The staff of Viva magazine adored him, their employer!  Once the magazine was on stable footing, Colouprint agreed to rent four flats on Ngong Road, as Mutahi Kagwe and me apart, all the staff were women who needed to live in a secure environment.  
And Colourprint’s own workers were loyal, because, among other things, they knew Bhushan, despite the impact on profitability, fought to protect jobs when new, less expensive printing technology in the early 1970s was creating redundancies.    
 
When I broke the news of Bhushan’s death to Raila Odinga with these brief words above, he wrote back immediately to say that that was shocked and that “Bhushan was all that you have stated, plus more. I have never known a more generous and forgiving person in his community. He died a patriot.” 

My friend Gacheke Gachihi, the tireless rights fighter and Coordinator of the Mathare Social Justice Center known among other things for its campaign against then normalization of Extrajudicial Killings, responded by referring to the Vidyarthis “as the Mwigwithania family. It was Colourprint’s printing for free 5,000 posters for my candidacy of the Sarina Party in Mathare, and Bhushan’s personal encouragement that gave me the inspiration to get the Center going."  

Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, who was Viva’s marketing director in the late 1970s, spent hours with the family on Sunday. “No one who met Bhushan could ever forget the man. He was that rare gentleman entrepreneur." 

I have written scores of articles on departed leaders and friends, but I have never had the flood of personal responses from those who totally loved Bhushan or been propelled to success with his support. Indeed, I too am among one of those! In 1974, I had just been forced out as Editor of the Sunday Post because of my criticism of the government, and no other newspaper was willing to employ me in that very tense and repressive year, marked by a brutal succession struggle that was underway before the pivotal October 1974 election which was expected to then-ailing Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s last. 

So tight was state repression in that period that George Githii, the Nation’s powerful Editor then, twice tried to hire me after I left the Sunday Post but was rebuffed, even though he wanted to place me in the non-political position of sub-editor. Indeed, a few months after the election, we witnessed the brutal murder of J.M. Kariuki. But Bhushan still hired me to start a new publication, which became VIVA magazine and was Colourprint’s first openly political involvement.  
 
From the 1979 election, President Moi’s first, and for the next quarter of a century, Colouprint became a force in pushing for greater democracy by 
printing campaign posters and materials for progressives, independents, and regime opponents leaders who could barely afford them, including George Anyona, Koigi wa Wamwere, Chelagat Mutai, Kijana Wamalwa, Wangond’u wa Kariuki, and Anyang’ Nyong’o.  Colouprint in effect ended up being the printers for the Second Liberation, whose lengthy struggles waged at great human cost ultimately led to a restoration of democracy in 2002 with the election of President Mwai Kibaki. That victory led to Kenyans being declared the world’s most optimistic people in a global survey by the Gallup Poll. It was a short-lived victory of course – the struggle continues intensely, with the 2022 election looming as the most pivotal one since 2002 – but a huge step forward. Like Biden’s victory over Trump.    

From 1981 on, when President Moi turned dictatorial after an encouraging start, Colourprint’s woes grew amid the severely increased repression that he unleashed. Kenyans know well the intense harassment of media and journalists, but it was in fact a printer, Colouprint, which was the most repeatedly harassed and persecuted during Moi’s rule.  
The regime’s most egregious such act was the assault on Colourprint on 28 April 1995, when it printed Njehu Gatabaki’s outspokenly anti-Moi Finance magazine with some explosive allegations. Director Anil Vidyarthi was arrested and led away in handcuffs to jail and charged with sedition, and Colourprint’s printing machines were dismantled and rendered inoperable.  It took weeks of international pressure to undo the damage.  

Another assault on Colourprint took the form of a huge fire burning its printing presses, reportedly set by a gang of thugs. But the thugs were forced to leave behind the car they arrived in as it too caught fire! Its ownership was eventually traced through its license plates to a senior figure close to President Moi. 

In another raid, none of the directors were there, so the police arrested Bhushan’s young son Sanjeev! The totally innocent young man was dumped into police cell overnight. There was so much more such harassment, including of the Colourprint-owned Viva magazine, and its Editor, but the Vidyarthis were not deterred. 

Despite such tribulations, it is a tribute to Bhushan’s extreme humanity that he rose to be a pillar of his community and its philanthropy, and of Rotary. 
Dr Rajindar Saini, past chairman of Arya Samaj, spelled out in his beautiful funeral tribute Bhushan’s stalwart role in the Samaj, including as chairman of both its Nairobi and Eastern Africa bodies. Dr Saini highlighted the role that families play in people’s rise to greatness, in a tribute by Anil Vidyarthi’s daughter Smriti, the Nation TV news anchor. He said Bhushan was a devoted member of Arya Samaj, and chairman of both its Nairobi and Eastern African bodies followed in the footsteps of his illustrious grandmother Mathura Devi Horra, who over a century ago was one of the founders and the first president of Arya Stri Samaj. 

But if others felt Bhushan’s warmth and generosity, the affection and deep commitment his family enjoyed him was truly something to behold. His grandchildren were showered with affection and attention of gargantuan proportions, as were his daughters in law, and they all returned the love multifold. Seema, his son Sandeep’s wife, was totally devoted to Bhushan especially after the terrible loss of wife Kamlesh in 2009. Bhushan and Kamlesh had been inseparable childhood sweethearts from ages 12 and 9.  He bore his sorrow with great dignity but could never hide it from those close to him.    

Bhushan’s youngest granddaughter, Samit and Gauri’s Sayana, shared a love for art and horse riding with her Grandad – and she intends to finish all his unfinished paintings. That was a new love the ever creative and Bhushan developed which helped him stay on top of his Parkinson’s.  

Crucial to understanding Bhushan and his siblings’ commitment to service and courage is the storied legacy of their father, the pioneer journalist freedom fighter Girdharilal Vidyarthi, twice jailed by the British for his “seditious” writings, and of his wife Shanti Devi. In Mau Mau & Nationhood, John Lonsdale details Girdharilal challenging stringent colonial restraints to become a champion of the freedom of the press in the service of political freedom with his with the Colonial Press and Colonial Times, through publishing the writings of nationalist leaders, and printing indigenous political advocacy publications like Ramogi, Sauti ya Mwafrika, Mumenyereri and Jicho. 
With such provenance, the three Colouprint brothers naturally rose to the challenge and excelled. Anil was a pioneer news photographer with the Nation, and his media savvy and technical skills became invaluable for Colouprint. Sudhir at a very early age got the chance of a lifetime when he became an advising partner to the Milton Obote Foundation in Kampala, helping to start The People daily newspaper. That early direct immersion in politics made him the most public and politically connected figure Vidyarthi brother.    

The result of the three combined talents was a Colourprint with high-level printing capability, strong affinity with progressive democratic groups, and lots of friends in all walks of life - but a contentious relationship with the authorities.

I want to close with the words of Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o and his wife Dorothy, which helped lift me out of the deep melancholy over Bhushan’s passing. “Ya Mungu truly ni mengi” Nyong’o wrote to me, referring to Dorothy’s having seen Bhushan just two weeks earlier and finding him “fit and healthy, beaming with life and as joyful as ever.”  
That is how Bhushan always was, and how I will always remember him.

2 comments:

  1. am glad to read about people i have known in another planet in another time frame. Kul Bhuhshan and Salim Lone were and are shining stars of that planet in those days.

    ReplyDelete
  2. A fitting tribute to a truly good man. We shared much over many years and I'll be grateful for the advice and counsel. Rest well my friend. Om Shanti Shanti

    ReplyDelete

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