H.S. Dillon, who fought for Indonesia’s farmers and the poor – has left us….

H.S.Dillon’s grave in the Kalibata Heroes’ Cemetery. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

IO – On a cloudless morning on the 16th of September 2019 at the Kali­bata National Heroes’ Cemetery the head of a military guard of honor read out: “I stand here today on behalf of the state and people of Indonesia, to honor and read out the life and ac­complishments of Harbrinderjit Singh Dillon…”

Thereby, making H.S. Dillon the first Indonesian Sikh to be honored at Indonesia’s National Heroes’ Cem­etery. He received a six-gun salute. His coffin was buried in the small area of the cemetery reserved for Hindus, Buddhists – and now Sikhs. Dillon’s great grandfather was a Sikh who came to Medan, North Sumatra in the 19th century on his own initiative and began work as a night watchman. The family worked its way up and he would surely have been proud to know that his great grandson is now honored in Kalibata. “Perhaps he will remain the only Sikh buried here as there are no other Sikhs who have re­ceived the Maha Putra (Great Son of Indonesia) Award,” commented Dil­lon’s brother Rajkumar Singh with pride.

Honor guard for H.S. Dillon’s funeral. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

At the Kalibata Heroes’ Cemetery, Henry Saragi head of the Indonesian Farmers Union was clearly trying to come to turns with his feelings of loss at Dillon’s death, “I have known Dil­lon for close on to 19 years – since when we first began the struggle for the rights of poor farmers,” he began. “It’s an enormous loss for the Farm­ers’ Union. Dillon was the intellectual backbone of the thinking behind ag­riculture reform as well as for rural life in Indonesia. He helped to for­mulate the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indonesian Farmers in 2001 when he was with the Indone­sian Human Rights Commission and this provided the foundations for the promulgation of Law no 19 of 2013 for the Protection and Empowerment of Farmers. It in turn became the ba­sis for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas which was ratified in New York on the 17th of December 2018.”

Another of Dillon’s brothers, Savtanter Singh Dillon who works as a psychiatrist in America comment­ed, “Dillon touched so many lives and very few people know about how many people he helped. There was a lady of the Bahai faith who was at a loss and he helped her to bring in speakers and fund raise. There was a very sick child and he helped raise funds so that it could be sent for spe­cial treatment abroad- and there were so many more. Dillon was the youngest of seven children and he was brilliant. When he graduated from Cornell his friends were telling him to apply for a job with the World Bank. He would have had a big salary and a guaran­teed pension but Dillon said no he wanted to to return to Indonesia and help his country. He had such pas­sion…”

Rajkumar Singh is not surprised that Dillon chose agriculture as his field, “The Sikh culture is an agri­culture one. In the Punjab the Sikhs are farmers,” he explained. But what drew Dillon to dedicating his life to farmers and the poor?

Henry Saragi tried to explain it, “We both came from Medan and we both had lived on plantations there. So, we knew how plantations were managed with an economic system that was so unfair to the workers and farmers. If our plantations had been managed in a fair way Indonesia would now be prosperous. So, Dillon really understood how farmers and agricultural workers lived. At the Ministry of Agriculture he was the one who created the concept of PIRBUN (Perusahan Inti Rakyat Perkebunan) or NES (Small Holder Nucleus Es­tates) in 1977.”

 Beside those who came to pay their respects at Kalibata many others had come the day before to hon­or H.S. Dillon at the offices of the Komnas HAM or Indonesian Human Rights Commission where for the whole day people came to express their memories and sadness at his passing. Marzuki Darusman a close friend, former Attorney general and former head of the Commission com­mented at how untimely Dillon’s passing away was, “He was one of those indispensable knots, if you will, holding many of us – in joyousness, I might add – together; those striving for an ever more civilized Indonesia – his pet quip. He will be dearly and deeply be missed.”

H.S. Dillon at his finest. (photo: Courtesy of Wira Dillon)

His words were confirmed by former Gol­kar party chief Akbar Tanjung who said that he, Dillon and Marzuki had been close friends who used to meet regularly to discuss the state of the nation, “I was close to him for we both came from Medan. He was very much a humanist with a great dedi­cation to his people and his country. Dillon was passionate about poverty alleviation.”

Many people do not know that in his capacity as a member of the Hu­man Rights Commission Dillon went to Timor Leste and Atambua (a town in Indonesian West Timor on the border with Timor Leste) as head of the team that exhumed the mass graves of victims of atrocities. A member of the team spoke of how in the hot sun with the powerful stench of rotting bodies Dillon still thought of the well being of the other members of the team.

Some of the organizations that Dillon helped establish were the An­ti-Corruption Commission or KPK, the Partnership for Governance Re­form or Kemitraan, the Sajogyo Insti­tute (Centre for the documentation of Agriculture, Poverty and Rural Life in Indonesia), CRP (which promotes local cui­sine) and dozens more.

Monica Tanuhandaru of Kemi­traan says that Dillon was still want­ing to hold a farmer’s congress and was concerned about the criminaliza­tion of farmers. He was also worried about the draft Corruption Eradica­tion Commission Law and the draft Criminal Code amongst others. The most fervent wish of Dillon’s sons, Wira and Koko is that their father’s work and struggle be continued.

Nia Sjarifudin, an activist for pluralism says that Dillon reflected Indonesia’s pluralism and he was always confident in himself as a hu­man being, as a citizen and he re­garded others that way too without regard for their background or be­liefs. And indeed, at the offices of the Komnas HAM a Christian priests, a Muslim kyai and a Hindu priest all said prayers for Dillon who had also been active in interfaith dialogue. At Kalibata cemetery the Buddhist As­sociation sent Dillon an enormous floral display.

Thomas Bergstrom was just an acquaintance but he came to the funeral in Kalibata because Dillon impressed him. “Dillon was an in­spiration. You know what is missing in today’s world is integrity – and he was a man of integrity.”

H.S. Dillon receiving the Maha Putra (Great Son of Indonesia) award from President Joko Widodo. (Photo credit: Kemitraan Bagi Pembaruan Tata Pemerintah)

It was in part this integrity that made it possible for H.S. Dillon to serve his country in so many capaci­ties. For he served as the expert staff at the Ministry of Agriculture for the plantation sector especially state-owned plantation companies, as Di­rector of the Centre for Agricultural Policy Studies, as a member of the Na­tional Economic Council, a member of the KPK, as Country Representative of the International Association of Ag­ricultural Economists and he was the head of the Association for the Indonesian Agricultural Economy. He also served as Pres­ident Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s special envoy for poverty eradication and held many more national and in­ternational positions too numerous to all be mentioned here.

Nevertheless, there was also an­other side to Dillon. With his exqui­sitely tailored suits that frequently had the tip of a handkerchief stick­ing out of his breast pocket always perfectly matching his beautiful turban sometimes black, navy blue, grey, white or golden he was nearly always the most elegant man in the room and his charming voice would call out at receptions, “Excellency, how are you?” to everyone he met. When a person tried to protest to not call him Excellency, Dillon would say, “But why Excellency? Everyone deserves to be called Excellency.”

“Yes, he was the most elegant man!” laughed Mirta Kartohad­iprodjo founder of Femina magazine. “When Atika Makarim and I went for a visit to India Dillon had us running around the bazaars looking for the cloth for a turban the exact shade of colour that he wanted!”

Rajkumar Singh, Dillon’s older brother by 4 years who has such a distinct resemblance to Dillon that it is almost uncanny disclosed, “In­deed, but our father was even more elegant. Whenever our father passed by, he would leave a scented trail of perfume behind him. Our father would only wear English shoes and imported shirts. Now he was a truly elegant man!”

Dillon was in Bali celebrating the wedding of film maker Ram Punjabi’s son when he suffered a stroke and passed away a few days later on the 16th of September and was cremated in Bali. Ram Punjabi who is known for producing such epic films as Soekar­no and Kartini commented sadly, “If God could create other human beings in 3 minutes, he must have taken an hour to create Dillon for he was such a complete person, almost too per­fect and he treated everyone with the same goodness.”

Dillon’s wife Drupadi and his son Koko at his funeral. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Dillon’s wife Dr Drupadi Harnopi­djati, popularly known as Atje agrees with this. Quoting Prof Ascobat Gani she said, “Dillon criticized almost ev­eryone…but he hated no one; he had no enemies… he loved everyone.”

John Duewel who specializes in developmental rural sociology and has worked for the Indonesian gov­ernment knew Dillon when he was at Cornell and tells the following story about Dillon and Atje: Atje’s father was the rector of the University of North Sumatra and the families were neighbors. Once he asked Dillon to take his wife and daughter to the cinema. Atje’s mother did not want Dillon as a husband for her daughter and took Atje to a psychologist where she complained that he was being too nice to her daughter. The psycholo­gist asked her in disbelief, “But don’t you want a man who is kind to your daughter?” When Dillon heard about it he smiled and said, “See even the psycholo­gist was on my side.”

“Once Dillon and I had a few drinks at a pub,” said Duewel cele­brating Dillon’s wry sense of humor, “and when we left, he handed me the keys to his car and told me to drive. When I asked him why me, he re­sponded ‘Your father was a theolo­gian and wrote 24 books on prayers. I think you have a far better chance of not hitting a car than I do’.”

Duewel reminisced about Dil­lon’s humor and ability to enjoy life and combine the two. At Berkeley Dillon created the International As­sociation of Camel Breeders (Cornell chapter) which was a club that met once a month for mid-career people from foreign countries doing develop­ment studies. “He had such a sense of style. The night after his PhD de­fense exam Dillon bought 20 bottles of champagne and had 40 professors and students over for a party. He said that he wanted to show that he had some style and that it was not just white guys putting up a good show but that an Indonesian could too,” re­called Duewell with a grin.

The military command in Bali also provided an honor guard for Dillon. Most funerals for Indonesian heroes are for Muslims or Christians. At the funerals of Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs where the deceased is not buried but cremated a coffin is still buried. An honor guard was provid­ed for Dillon’s coffin with a flag which was then flown to Jakarta with his ashes. On the 20th of September an­other honor guard was provided in Jakarta to accompany Dillon’s coffin to its burial site in Kalibata, where a tombstone will be provided. Dillon’s ashes however were scattered in the sea in accordance with the Sikh faith and traditions.

Sarwono Kusumaatmadja the former Minister of the Environment looking slender and exactly the same as 20 years ago when the Soeharto government fell, appeared in Kaliba­ta and commented with a sigh, “I’ve known Dillon since the 1980s when he was still working at the Ministry of Agriculture. He was such an elo­quent, committed and tireless worker. He was concerned not just with ag­riculture but justice, equity, equality and human rights; a very interesting person and his consistency was awe inspiring…”

Banker, economist and activist Fe­lia Salim said that Dillon told her that we as a nation keep failing because we keep failing to address the most basic thing: the care of human rights. It is the basis for everything else in­cluding the economy but he also said that we must keep trying and in or­der to do that we will make mistakes but that is all right because if we are making mistakes then we are making new things, learning, living, pushing and changing ourselves. So, that is what he wished for us that we would make glorious, new, amazing mis­takes – and thereby final better our country and our world. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Honor guard for H.S. Dillon’s funeral. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)