Prof Pheroz Tehmurasp Contractor: Silent, unnoticed warrior against casteism

Phillibhai leading a Dalit rights rally

By Martin Macwan* [inputs: Gagan Sethi]

It was the month of May 1976 and I had just appeared for the old SSC board exams. A friend of mine in Nadiad had asked me to join him in a training program on social awareness to be held in Mount Abu. It is here in the building called ‘Glen View’, a Jesuit house, where I met Prof. Pheroz Contractor, called by all by his pet name, ‘Phillybhai’.

Phillybhai was a professor teaching economics at St. Xavier’s college, Ahmedabad. The other trainers with him were Fr. Jose Maria Heredero, a Professor of Political Science and Prof. B. B. Siddiqui, a professor in Psychology. In few days to follow they were going to resign from the ST. Xavier’s College, even though they were 35 years of age around and set up one of the prestigious organization within the St. Xavier’s college campus; the Behavioural Science Centre (BSC).

Phillybhai taught Economics at a college in Petlad before he joined as a professor at St. Xavier’s. It was his skill as a hockey player and a hockey coach for the students that had brought him to the Xavier’s College.

A month later, I enrolled as a student in St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad for my graduation. I met one more person with whom I would associate for next almost five decades. He was officially the first staff member of BSC. A graduate of St. Xavier’s and MSW from Baroda, Gagan was close to Phillybhai, the latter being his teacher Economics in 1972 at the college and he and Fr. Heredero were his first trainers in the same Glen View at Mt. Abu in a Leadership Program, such was the impact that he decided to engage with them as a student and then joined them.

Phillybhai passed away on 31st January 2021 afternoon. Even though he did not make any headlines in the newspapers or television, he spent good years of his life contributing quietly in training people to raise their voice against Caste discrimination and injustice in general. He was one of the two important people in my life who contributed to my career.

History of St. Xavier’s College, a Jesuit run institution, which produced a Chief Minister for Gujarat; late Shri. Chimanbhai Patel and inspirational Gujarati literary figures such as Fr. Carlos Valles had a turbulent history too.

The college practiced caste discrimination just like any other institution and even though it admitted Dalit students, including Dalit students converted to Christianity, they did not find place in the College Hostel. These students lived in a hall few meters away from the boy’s hostel on the second floor of the canteen. The food for them was brought in to the place of their residence from the mess after other students had finished their meals. What better example of caste rule can be shown except this where the Christian students were discriminated on the basis of caste by a Christian institution?

To my memory from the testimonies I heard, Fr. Heredero, a Spanish Priest and a teacher of political science was one of those who raised protest to such a discrimination. A progressive measure was ushered in and the Dalit students found their right to stay in the hostel, in one of the three exclusively ‘reserved’ and segregated rooms in the college boy’s hostel ! Along with Phillybhai, Fr. Heredero was the other person who contributed to my career into the field of challenging the caste.

It was 1960. The study and the book of a famous American psychologist David McClelland on the pathbreaking theory and research on the subject ‘Achievement Motivation’ that had caught the attention of the three above mentioned professors at St. Xavier’s College. They decided to use the theory ‘ Motivation helps people to achieve more’ for the students of the College. These were very well received programs. These programs were later extended to group of village farmers and the community leaders. It was one of this program in 1976 which introduced me to these professors.

The work with farmers followed by visits to their village which brought to attention of these professors for the first time, the dark realities of Caste and the related rampant discrimination. A while later, BSC focused attention on community development in the villages of Cambay Taluka in the region of Bhal. While Gagan had joined the Institution in 1977 immediately after completing his Masters in Social Work, I joined immediately after completing my graduation in 1980. Phillibhai was our common guide, living with us in the villages for three days and night each week. He often accompanied me to the villages of Deesa Taluka in Banaskantha where we had started working with a community of Maji Rana, the refugees from Pakistan.

Phillibhai was an emotional man and deeply committed to the cause empowering the poor. He was a passionate trainer/educator and his Parsi Gujarati even added more flavor to his training sessions. I had the honor of joining in conducting numerous training programs. He sat at night talking to the village men and women for several hours by the kerosene lamp or simply under the moon light as there was no electricity in the village.

I shared one room house with Phillybhai and Gagan in the village and occasionally there was one more person to join. Three of us shared a single bucket of water for bath.

Martin Macwan

I remember the day I cannot forget which changed my life. I had sensed some trouble in village Golana where we worked. He had asked me to accompany people to the Police station to ensure there is no violence. I had reached the village on my motorcycle on 24th January 1986. Even after waiting for few hours the Dalit leaders who were to accompany me to the police station did not return from another village they were visiting on a social call, I returned home. The next day when I was sharing with Phillybhai, my apprehensions about the tension in the village Golana, it was the time the Dalits were shot dead in the village. Gagan was away in Mt Abu conducting a training program along with Fr. Heredero. The few following months were the most traumatic time of our life.

Feeling unable to work with the Jesuits, Phillybhai resigned with heavy heart from the BSC, the institution to which he was one of the founding member. Gagan and he joined together to set up Janvikas and took the role of training and mentoring young people through an IGSSS supported SMILE program. Many organisations were born out of Janvikas : KMVS, Sahjeevan, Drishti, Econet, to name a few. Janvikas and Navsarjan which I initiated remain twin sisters till today, Phillybhai was the starting point of this common endeavour. He spent later years working in the villages of Rajasthan.

He had served as the Chairperson of Navsarjan Trust. He was very happy and proud when Navsarjan organized one of the massive rally of Dalits in 1997 drawing more than 20,000 people in Ahmedabad.

Phillybhai did not agree with me in many things. He was apprehensive about my involvement at the national and international level. He insisted to focus only in the villages. He had more doubts about the civil society taking side of the poor. Throughout life, he resolutely protected his own vision, his conviction was impreganble.

He was hardly noticed in the media and in the public eyes because he preferred to stay away.

As I looked at his mortal remains yesterday evening with Gagan on my side in the company of only few close members of the family, the memories of last 45 years raced in my mind. A man worked tirelessly without being noticed.

With him an era of the first generation activist teachers passes on and leaves behind scores of his mentees who carry the torch he lit.

*Founder, Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad

One thought on “Prof Pheroz Tehmurasp Contractor: Silent, unnoticed warrior against casteism

  1. Thank you Martin for this sharing. I have met Philybhai a few times during the years 1992-96 and heard about him a lot from Gagan. Though I did not attend his training programmes but have learnt a lot from Gagan and you. So in a way I consider myself as his student. It is sad that he has left us. I know his passing has left a void in your life. But I am so glad that his legacy lives on in Gagan and you and through you in scores of development workers and activists across India. So Philybhai’s life had a lot of meaning. RIP Philybhai! Anuradha Prasad

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