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Life lessons from Jagjivan Ram

His identification with people’s struggles is a world away from today’s careerist politicians

Written by M.B. Rajesh |
April 9, 2012 3:13:45 am

His identification with people’s struggles is a world away from today’s careerist politicians

No matter what yardstick you apply to judge Jagjivan Ram,he was one of the greatest leaders India has ever seen. A man who had experienced the brutality of the caste system,he came close to creating history by becoming the first Dalit prime minister in 1977. He gave up his claim in order to make way for a consensus candidate and became deputy PM instead. He was a parliamentarian par excellence,an able administrator,a reputed scholar and a great orator.

He was first nominated to the Bihar provincial council after popular rule was introduced and SCs were given representation in legislatures under the Government of India Act of 1935. Then,from 1946 onwards,he remained in Parliament for an uninterrupted 40 years. He took oath as the youngest minister in the provisional government headed by Nehru in 1946,and then he remained a cabinet minister for 34 years. These are,undoubtedly,great achievements. But he is not remembered only because of the positions he occupied at the highest echelons of power — rather,the warmth and affection he evokes are because of his identification with the downtrodden and those discriminated against. That is why he has found a place in the hearts of poor masses,as a symbol of their hopes and aspirations.

This assimilation into Dalit identity was natural for him. As a student,he suffered persecution in the name of caste. During his days at Benares Hindu University he was even denied haircuts by local barbers. Because of such experiences,he fully understood the horrendous discrimination and frustrating denial of opportunities in all spheres of life that millions of Dalits were subjected to. These circumstances made him committed to fighting the caste system. While at BHU,he organised students belonging to SCs to protest caste-based discrimination. He was also instrumental in the formation of All India Depressed Class League,an organisation dedicated to achieving equality for untouchables. His meeting with Madan Mohan Malaviya in 1925 marked a turning point,and it was Malaviya who facilitated his entry to BHU with a scholarship. As a member of the constituent assembly,he played a pre-eminent role in incorporating effective provisions to safeguard the rights and interests of deprived classes. His contributions were significant in ensuring that the Constitution prohibited the practice of untouchability or caste-based discrimination. He was instrumental in the formulation of the Civil Rights Act of 1955. Along with others,he played a crucial role in providing for reservation in public employment,and reservation of seats in legislatures for SCs and STs — a provision that helped marginalised sections in a big way. However,the brazen privatisation that is taking place today is snatching away these benefits. The large number of vacancies in Central and state government services have led to further erosion of opportunities available via reservation. Hard-won gains are being taken away through the back door. The situation has become much more complex than the period in which the idea of reservation in public employment was evolved. We need to interpret and develop the concept of reservation in order to address the new challenges — it is in this context that demand for reservation in employment in the private sector becomes extremely relevant.

Despite earnest efforts by leaders like Jagjivan Ram,various forms of discrimination still prevail,including the worst forms of caste oppression,like honour killings. Dalits and tribals have been subjected to acute economic exploitation. Their land and livelihood are under unprecedented attack. Unless the struggles initiated by leaders like Babuji are properly developed and linked to demands like land reforms and movements for economic emancipation,things will remain unchanged or become worse.

The most outstanding feature of Babuji’s political personality was his deep connection with the masses. There was an incident in 1977 that proved his immense popularity. In an attempt to prevent a massive public turnout at a rally to be addressed by Jagjivan Ram,Doordarshan,then a sarkari channel,screened the blockbuster Bobby as their Sunday evening film. However,tens of thousands of people poured into his rally,and a newspaper headline put it like this: “Babu beats Bobby”. Jagjivan Ram’s popularity contrasts sharply with the disconnect between modern drawing room leaders and the people. He lived all his life as one among the people,learned from them,taught them and led them from the front. The fact that he won eight successive general elections is proof of his mass appeal. Compare this with the practice of our current leaders avoiding the inconvenience of facing people in Lok Sabha elections,and taking the back-door route of the Rajya Sabha to power. For the technocratic,professional and billionaire leaders of our time,who land directly in the safe havens of power,politics is merely a better career option. For people like Jagjivan Ram,politics was part of the life and struggle they waged and an effective means to serve the people. Jagjivan Ram’s image evolved out of his long and close association with the masses. In contrast,our new leaders manufacture and nurture their image through media management and deliberate marketing techniques.

His success as an administrator owes to his extraordinary political wisdom,derived from his vast experience of working among the masses. He handled portfolios as diverse as labour,food and agriculture,railways,communications and defence. He was defence minister during the Bangladesh War of 1971. As minister for agriculture,he played a vital role in implementing the Green Revolution. As an administrator,he acted swiftly but in a humane and democratic manner. He never bulldozed policies and decisions through. Despite being continuously in power for decades,he was never infected with intellectual arrogance,intolerance of power or inaction. He was accommodating,responsive and always strove towards consensus.

For this generation,which has rarely seen leaders like Jagjivan Ram,his life and work provides immense possibilities to understand the art of practising politics. You may or may not agree with his politics,but cannot ignore the valuable lessons his admirable political life offers.

The writer is a CPM MP in the Lok Sabha

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