Babu Jagjivan Ram: Messiah of the downtrodden
- by Sham Dass Khanna
A doughty champion of the downtrodden and consistent adherent of the left of the center ideology, Mr. Jagjivan Ram was one of the political stalwarts of the post-independence era. A comparatively younger entrant in Jawaharlal Nehru’s interim government in 1946, Mr. Jagjivan Ram went on to be a cabinet minister for about three decades in successive Congress Governments and was a powerful figure in the party’s policy making circles. “Babuji” as he was known, branched off into what turned out to be none-too happy political venture, when he broke with Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress party towards the closing months of the Emergency. In the short-lived Janta Government, he came to occupy the position of Deputy Prime Minister, but his ambition of becoming the first Dalit Prime Minister, which he thought was his rightful due, eluded him.
Administrative ability and an element of luck characterized Mr. Jagjivan Ram’s stewardship of a number of ministries at the center ranging from Labour to Defence. In Parliament, he was a powerful debater, noted for skilful oratory, clarity of thought and a capacity to disarm rivals. He commanded a position of importance both in the Congress Party and in the Janta Party, although his own creation, the short lived Congress for Democracy (CFD), which later merged into Janta and subsequently became Congress (J), failed to mister a popular base. Whether in the Government or outside, Mr. Jagjivan Ram was one of the senior politicians who were regular visitors to the Central Hall of the Parliament. Journalists found him a friendly figure, which often gave them a valuable insight into the political processes without being indiscreet.
Born into a scheduled caste family on 5th April 1908 at Chandwa in Bihar, young Jagjivan faced social ostracism. He had to carry the cross of being a low caste all through his life. His primary education as in a village school, where he was exposed to caste discrimination. Jagjivan Ram got married at the tender age of eight in 1916 and in 1919 he had finished his upper primary education. In 1920, he joined the local mission school. Despite severe compartmentalization of the caste system, there was no stopping for Babuji from pursuing studies. The second decade of the 20th century was a period of hectic political activities in India. The Home Rule League, the Khilafat Movement and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had instilled an unprecedented nationalistic fervor among the Indians. People were rallying around the leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya and Mahatma Gandhi in milions to drive the British out of the country. All this left a deep imprint on the young and formative mind of Babuji, who also was drawn towards the mainstream of the freedom struggle. In 1926, Babuji passed his Matriculation examination with flying colours. That year Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya happened to visit Arrah town in connection with the Khilafat Movement. Fired by nationalistic zeal, Babuji gave a forceful welcome address in honour of Malviyaji, who was immensely impressed by his ideas. Malviyaji invited him to pursue his higher studies in Banaras Hindu University. Accordingly, Jagjivan Ram joined the BHU and took up Social Studies. He also got a Birla Scholarship. In the BHU hostel, young Jagjivan found himself face to face with the monster of caste discrimination once again. Hostel servants refused to clean his utensils. Babuji was forced to rent own. But this was not the end of his troubles. When a barber refused to give him a haircut, Jagjivan launched boycott of all the barbers with the help of scheduled caste boys of the town. The six-month-long boycott made the barbers see reason and the issue was settled. This was the beginning of Babuji’s life-long crusade against untouchability.
He began his public life s an earnest worker fighting for the uplift of the Dalit community to which he belonged and participated actively in the freedom struggle. During the 1930 Congress Movement, he helped secretly in the circulation of leaflets and pamphlets about the movement. He offered individual satyagraha and was imprisoned for a year in December 1940. He was again arrested at Patna in August 1942 and detained during the Quit India Movement. After his release in October 1943 on medical grounds, he toured various provinces to strengthen the depressed classes organizations. He was the President of the All India Depressed Class League from 1936 to 1946.
In 1931, Babuji took his B.Sc. degree from Calcutta University. By early 1930, the struggle for independence had reached its zenith. This was the period when Mahatma Gandhi launched his Salt Satyagraha and Swadeshi Movement and the Indian National Congress adopted the resolution demanding Complete Independence for India at its Lahore session. Young Jagjivan was observing the Congress “satyagrahis’ counting arrest. He could not contain himself and resolved to devote himself wholeheartedly to the cause of the country’s freedom. In 1931, Gandhiji’s refusal to accept the statutory reservation of seats at the Round Table Conference irritated Babuji. He wrote a strongly worded letter to the Mahatma. Gandhiji’s secretary in reply said that Bapu regarded any kind of segregation as bad both for the upper caste and the harijans. During this time, an anti-untouchability league was set up which was later renamed as Harijan Sewak Sangh. By 1935, Mr. Jagjivan Ram had made up his mind to devote himself to the upliftment of the downtrodden.
Babuji’s family tried to influence him to join government service to be able to lead a more comfortable life, but he brushed all temptations aside and by early 1930, he had emerged as the most influential leader of the harijans in Bihar. During this period, Babuji came in contact with Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who later became independent India’s first President. The two shared common goal and views. Mr. Jagjivan made Bihar the launching pad for his crusade against untouchability. His steadfast devotion to the cause led to his appointment as the Secretary of the Bihar branch of the Harijan Sewak Sangh. Until mid-1930s, Babuji grappled with the plethor of social problems facing the have-nots. Following his differences with Thakkar Bapa, All India secretary of the Sangh, he resigned his post in 1935 and concentrated all his energies in his work of the depressed classes league.
In May, 1936 B.R.Ambedkar, another staunch fighter for the depressed classes, gave a call to his followers to denounce Hindu religion. However, Mr. Jagjivan Ram differed with him. His approach was nationalist. He said, “In the progress of the country lies our progress, in its salvation and in its emancipation our emancipation.”
His call to the depressed classes to remain in the mainstream of Indian National life and to strive for justice and equality within its ambit made Mr. Jagjivan Ram a force to reckon with. Babuji’s untiring efforts infused new life and vitality into the Depressed Classes League when the Congress decided to contest the Provincial Legislature Elections in 1937, the League announced that it would contest all the 15 Reserved Seats in Bihar. Beyond all expectations, it won all the seats. Mr. Jagjivan Ram’s nomination to the Bihar Legislature Council about a year earlier had initiated him into Parliamentary politics. And, in 1937, following his election to the Bihar Assembly, he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary. In 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, Congress ministries in all States decided to quit. Two years later, responding to Gandhiji’s call for Satyagraha and the Quit India Movement, Jagjivan Ram courted arrest and was in jail until 1943.
In 1946, the Congress again contested the elections to the Central and State Assemblies. Babuji was again elected but this time to the Central Legislative Assembly. And, when the Interim Government was formed on August 1, 1946, he joined the Central cabinet as Labour Minister. When India became independent, he was inducted into the Nehru Cabinet. From August 1947 to July 1979, he served as Cabinet Minister holding various portfolios except for a brief spell in 1963, when he resigned under the Kamaraj Plan. He rejoined the Cabinet when Mrs. Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister in 1966. He was Minister for Labour, Employment and Rehabilitation (1966-67), and then Minister of Food and Agriculture till 1970. In 1969, the Congress Party split. Babuji threw his weight behind Mrs. Gandhi and her faction and was elected President of the Party (1969-71). He was again inducted into the Union Cabinet as Defence Minister and Minister for Food and Agriculture till February 2, 1977, when he created a sensation by quitting the Congress Party and forming his own Party --- Congress For Democracy (CFD).
The sudden announcement on January 18, 1977 of a mid-term poll and lifting the emergency imposed on June 25,1975, filled the opposition parties with enthusiasm. These parties came together under the banner of Janta Party to contest the election. The mid-term poll, held in March 1977, gave a massive mandate to the Janta Party. The choice of the new Prime Minister posed a great hurdle, as there were two powerful contenders – Mr. Morarji Desai and Mr. Jagjivan Ram. Mr. Charan Singh also aspired to the high office but his indisposition stood in the way. He, however, lent his support to Mr. Desai, who became the Prime Minister. Both Mr. Jagjivan Ram and Mr. Charan Singh were designated Deputy Prime Ministers. Intra-party rivalries and inner bickering soon plagued the Janta Party, a conglomeration of Parties having diametrically opposite ideas. Driven by political and personal rivalries, the Janta Government fell before completing its term. Mr. Jagjivan Ram dissociated himself from the Janta in March 1980 and floated a Congress Party named after him. Later, he had been leaning towards the Congress (I).
In June 1986, this great leader of the depressed classes, as he was called, breathed his last. He remained a central figure till his death and was also an axis of the central politics in India.