March 22, 2021 9:52:07 pm
Ram Manohar Lohia’s birth anniversary falls on March 23. During the events organised to mark this occasion, demands are made to the government for posthumous conferment of India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, on Lohia. I anticipate that this year will be no different. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had placed this demand before President Ram Nath Kovind after the President delivered a Lohia memorial lecture in a private university. However, it would be an injustice to Lohia and his legacy if the government confers the Bharat Ratna on Lohia for many reasons.
One, Lohia was a strong advocate of rights and civil liberties and he considered civil liberties/rights as the foundation for fostering and strengthening democracy in the country and the world. He had this belief about civil liberties/rights from the very beginning of his political life. At the same time, the issue of civil liberties/rights for him was not merely theoretical; much of his political activism was spent in holding/joining protest movements related to civil and democratic rights and demands of common people, and in going to jail. Lohia was incarcerated in independent India more than he was during the British rule. It was but natural that the colonial government would make false accusations on a freedom-conscious person like Lohia and torture him to the maximum extent in jails. But the government, police and courts of independent India showed no restraint in making false, baseless allegations/cases and displaying indecent behaviour towards Lohia.
Lohia was arrested more than 25 times, including during the freedom movement, the Goa Liberation Movement, the movement for democracy in Nepal. In 1964, during his visit to America, he was arrested by the police for protesting against racial discrimination at public places. For Lohia, the meaning of freedom of the individual was not limited to the personal freedom of any leader or activist. His goal was to make the value of individual freedom meaningful at the level of the whole of humanity. He considered freedom from colonial slavery as the democratic right of every Indian. Lohia was lodged in Lahore Fort jail after his arrest during the Quit India movement. The British government allowed him to be released on parole to attend the funeral of his father. He did not accept release on parole because as an Indian and a human being he considered his arrest and punishment unjustifiable. Lohia was the only child of his parents; The funeral took place in his absence.
Lohia wrote a pamphlet titled “The Concept of Civil Liberties” for the Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU), established by the Congress in 1936, headed by Rabindranath Tagore with Sarojini Naidu as acting president. However, after independence, the Congress itself was not committed to the expectations and pledges mentioned in that pamphlet. During the struggle for independence and in independent India, Lohia was adamant in his support for Gandhi’s designated non-violent practice (civil disobedience) and accepted it as the greatest revolution of human civilisation. Only during the Quit India Movement or the August Revolution did he (along with Jayaprakash Narayan) improvise this stance.
It was not Lohia’s way to become democratic by keeping the option of violence in reserve. He also accepted no alternative to transparency in a peaceful resistance. His idea of socialist revolution and the way of struggle in that direction had been moulded in the blast furnace of democracy. Therefore, Lohia believed that if the struggle for civil liberties/rights is an art of strengthening the spirit and institutions of democracy, then it is an essential condition to have faith in the democratic setup. Lohia was against the dictatorship imposed on the people, and also against the indirect dictatorship in the name of the people.
It is a distinct feature of Lohia that he was equally supportive of the freedom of the individual along with constitutional civil liberties. Lohia did not accept suppression of individual freedom — whether the freedom of the individual was constrained under the feudal structure or under any modern ideology/system. He believed that the human mind is always on the path of quest. Therefore, no ideology/party can be perfect. He was against stagnation/indisposition, gang-captivity and surveillance based on ideologies and political parties. He has included the value of individual freedom in his concept of “Sapta Kranti” (seven revolutions).
In his contemplations, Lohia made a special emphasis on the freedom of women in all aspects. The goal of gender equality was at the top of Sapta Kranti. In this way, Lohia envisaged and advocated for a modern nation-state and democratic socialist system which provided an opportunity for the entire potential of men and women, in both human and civil forms, to flourish. The concept of “Chaukhambha Raj” (four-pillar state) propagated by him also contained the idea of freedom of diverse locations/identities vis-a-vis centralist hegemony.
From the time of independence there were some British laws and some new laws that violate civil liberties/rights. Since the introduction of the New Economic Policies in 1991, the enactment and use of such laws in the country has increased rapidly. During the tenure of the current Modi government, not only has there been an unprecedented boom in the enactment/amendment and use of laws that violate civil liberties/rights; it seems the government has launched a campaign taking repressive actions against the organisations/peoples struggling for or under civil liberties/rights. It has become a common practice to arrest people and file sedition cases against them. The data of the National Crime Records Bureau show that after 2014, sedition cases against citizens and organisations have increased significantly. Of greatest concern is that the high-ranking political leadership is directly involved in the suppression of democratic resistance. Conferring the highest civilian award to Lohia, who had demanded the resignation of his party’s government in Kerala over an incident of firing on protesters in 1954, would be blatant contempt of his political thoughts and deeds.
Ours is an era of corporate politics. This politics, from running a political party to contesting elections, thrives on the donations given by the super rich class of businessmen. Everyone knows that this wealth of donations comes from the immense profits that business houses have made from the purchase of national assets/resources/public sector undertakings sold by the governments at throwaway prices, and from the government policies that serve their profit-making interests. The charisma of corporate politics is worth noting that even the Prime Minister of the country feels pomp in the companionship of cronies and in using facilities offered by them. The government advocates the private sector openly in Parliament at the expense of the public sector, and is trying hard to make the private sector as strong as possible at the earliest.
Lohia could not have imagined that this form of politics would take root in independent India. He did not have a bank account. His party did not take money from foreign governments/institutions in the name of socialist revolution or movements. Lohia propounded the new idea of socialism vis-a-vis capitalism and communism. The present political setup has taken a plunge into corporate capitalism. Needless to say, that the Bharat Ratna to such a leader will be a huge dishonour and injustice to his memory.
The writer teaches Hindi in Delhi University
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