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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 14, March 21, 2009

Dr Lohia’s Life and Thought: Some Notes

Saturday 21 March 2009, by Surendra Mohan


The socialist movement in India was born in the womb of the struggle for independence. Some of its first rank leaders, who promoted the idea of forming a socialist group within the Congress party, were together in the Nasik prison in 1932-33. They included Jaya Prakash Narayan, Achyut Patwardhan, Yusuf Meherally, M.L. Dantwala, S.M. Joshi, Asoka Mehta and N.G. Goray. Some other prominent leaders of the Congress party like Acharya Narendra Dev, Dr Sampoornanand, Kamaldevi Chattopadhyaya, Dr K.B. Menon and Ganga Sharan Sinha were among the other founders of the Congress Socialist Party. Revolutionary leaders like Sibnath Bannerji, Jogesh Chandra Chatterji and Dinesh Dasgupta in Bengal, Kulbir Singh and Kultar Singh who were brothers of the great martyr Bhagat Singh, and Munshi Ahmed Din in Punjab, Yogendra Shukla and Basawan Sinha in Bihar also joined them. Dr Rammanohar Lohia, who had gone to Germany in 1929 for doctoral studies and had returned in 1932, was among these founders. He had become a Congress worker while in his teens under the influence of his father, Heera Lal Lohia, who was a staunch follower of the Mahatma. While studying in Berlin University, he had actively worked for anti-imperialist causes.

Dr Lohia brought his strong anti-imperialism in the work of the Foreign Relations Department of the All India Congress Committee where Nehru, then the Congress President, had put him. He pronounced that Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy were not only imperialist but also undemocratic. The ‘Final Solution’ of the Jewish question by the Nazis in Germany repelled him greatly. Later, he evolved the theory of Third Camp in world affairs. At the time of the Korean War, he differed from other colleagues who wanted to support the Atlantic Bloc. He rejected both sides in the Cold War. His policy became the official policy of the Party immediately.


Lohia was in the front rank of the ‘Quit India’ struggle launched by the Congress party in 1942, and founded the Azad Hind Radio in the underground. The Radio continued working till November of that year. Later, he met Jaya Prakish Narayan after JP, along with six other comrades fled from the Hazaribagh Jail, and both of them founded the Azad Dasta in Nepal. When the Government of Nepal arrested them, they were set free by their freedom fighter colleagues led by Suraj Narain Singh. After his arrest in India, he was kept in the infamous Lahore Jail and was tortured. But, his passion for freedom remained undimmed even after India achieved independence. He could not accept Portugal’s sovereignty on Goa, and visited the area in 1946 to strengthen the fight against the colonial rule.

Lohia’s crusade against the despotic rule in Nepal started with a protest dharna in front of the Nepal Embassy in New Delhi where he was accompanied by Prem Basin, who later served as the General Secretary of the Praja Socialist Party from 1963 to 1971, and Rajindar Sachar, who joined the judiciary in 1970 and retired as the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court in 1985. He continued to be of assistance to the Nepali Congress in its democratic struggle. In order that the socialist movement in the Afro-Asian world became a vehicle of the aspirations of the people of the Third World, Lohia, along with JP and other colleagues, helped in founding the Asian Socialist Conference in Rangoon, Burma, in 1953. But, as democratic governments in Indonesia, Burma and Nepal were overthrown, the Asian Socialist Conference folded up.

The split in the Praja Socialist Party also occurred on Lohia’s insistence on upholding a principle. He said that if a socialist government used force which resulted in the death of some persons, then it had no right to rule. He therefore asked the Government of Pattom Thanu Pillai in then Travancore Cochin (now part of Kerala State) to demit office. The National Executive of the Party did not accept his position. It appointed a Committee headed by H.V. Kamath to recommend how a socialist government would deal with an extraordinary law and order situation. Later, the National Council meeting in Nagpur in 1954 adopted the report of the Committee. It failed to endorse the principle enunciated by Lohia.

Lohia was an innovator of ideas. As Asoka Mehta, who was the General Secretary of the Socialist Party in 1950-53 and the Chairman of the PSP in 1959-63, told me during our imprisonment at the time of the National Emergency in 1976, “Lohia had the most fecund mind.” This tribute was given by a leader who was himself a person of ideas. Dr Lohia’s pioneering work, Economics After Marx, shows his mettle as a theorist. He argued that industria-lisation of the West European countries was helped a great deal by their exploitation of their colonies. He juxtaposed the process of industria-lisation in Britain against the outflow of wealth from India to that country because of the former’s colonial rule over India, to prove his point. Marx had referred to the internal exploitation of the people by industrialists for the generation of capital. Lohia wanted to correct this under-standing and to bring out the close relation between industrialisation and imperialism. Later, the South American economist, James Petras, worked on the same line to compute the flow of wealth from the South American continent to the ex-colonsing countries during their occupation. Although India has a large number of distinguished Marxist scholars of political economy, no one has thought it necessary to discuss Lohia’s prognosis.

Achievement of economic equality and end of economic exploitation were at the head of Lohia’s agenda. He wanted public ownership of large industries. Land reforms with land to the the tiller were part of his reconstruction of the Indian economy. He was keen that limits should be imposed on incomes and expenditure. His famous debate in the Lok Sabha in 1963 on the big disparity on the incomes of the common people and the affluent raised quite a storm in those days.

Lohia was one of the few socialists who pondered over the caste system. Dr Ambedkar had warned the socialists that unless they addressed this system, it would confront them at every stage. Lohia decided to reduce and ultimately remove the great disparities among the forward and backward castes and advocated preferential opportunities for the latter. He argued with other progressive elements which advocated class struggle and felt that once the class system was abolished, the caste system would be abolished as a consequences of it. He said that inequality was not only economic; it was social also. In India where the caste system and patriarchy (in most parts of the country) were part of the foundation of the social system, one would have to fight for caste and gender equality along with economic equality. He went to ask for 60 per cent reservation in all spheres of public life for the backwards, women and the backwards in the minority religious groups. This was like converting the liberal phrase ‘equality of opportunity’ to ‘opportunity of equality’.

Lohia’s concern for people’s languages was based on his desire that the country’s administration, its judicial system and its elite professions must not remain alienated from the masses of the society. He therefore strongly argued against the continuation of English as the medium of administration, the judiciary and higher education, including education of the professions. He was not per se opposed to the English language, but warned the powers that be that that it was impossible to make English the lingua franca of the common men and women. In the beginning, he was thought to be a Hindi zealot, but when he explained that he wanted English to be replaced by regional languages, that prejudice did not remain. He understood that as the link language, English could be replaced by Hindi only, and he offered reservations in Central jobs for non-Hindi speaking people. If a large proportion of our people are still illiterate or semi-literate and the quality of education low, the reason for it is the opposition to Lohia’s language policy. Democracy has in fact been reduced to a manipulative game of bureaucrats and other English educated elite; the common people find the process of law-making and administration far removed from them.

Indian socialists have campaigned strongly for the devolution of political and administrative power. Lohia coined the phrase ‘Four-Pillar State’ to put this policy in simple terms. Although there were several members of the Constituent Assembly who pleaded for Panchayat Raj, Ambedkar was opposed to it as he characterised the villages as dens of oppression. Nehru opposed devolution of power as he saw great merit in the existing system of administration as bequethed by the colonial masters. The strengthening of bureaucracy and the fact that its recruitment comes from the English educated affluent classes and forward castes has led to a situation of governance by these sections of the society which are a small minority in a vast population.


After India became free and it was felt that she should adopt a strategy of economic develop-ment, there was a dispute whether the Western model of economy was suited to our conditions or not. Gandhi had, in Hind Swaraj, called Western civilisation as satanic. Lohia pointed out that India was capital scarce but labour abundant. He explained that India did not have colonies, nor the time-space of a hundred years or more which the Western countries used for their industrialisation. He therefore advocated labour intensive technology as against the capital intensive technology of the West. He wanted the introduction of the small unit machine to be driven by power. He called upon Indian technologists to attempt the invention of such machines. Amulya Reddy of the Bangalore Institute of Technology understood his argument. Schumacher, the German philosopher, is widely known for his ‘Small is Beautiful’ concept.

The CSIR, the Union Government’s Department of Technology, the Indian Small Industries Corporation and the Khadi and Villlage Industries Commission are some institutions which have invented a large number of such technologies which are labour intensive, energy saving and eco friendly. The Central Government has a full-fledged department to promote these industries. There are schemes galore. But, bureaucratic management of such departments and their schemes makes it difficult for persons desiring self-employment to benefit from them. If Lohia’s ideas about administrative devolution and its use of the people’s languages, teaching in the people’s languages, his caste policy and his plea for small unit machine had been combined together, the situation in the country would have radically changed.

Lohia was one of the few members of the Congress Working Committee who opposed partition of the country in 1947. After partition, he was keen to promote the idea of a confederation of India and Pakistan. He was no less vexed on the communal tensions. He made a difference between the humanistic core of the Hindu religion and the narrow-minded use of it for creating communal tensions. He also wanted that a differentiation be made between foreign Muslim aggressors and the common Muslims who had nothing to do with those aggressions. These ideas are no less relevant today as they were during his lifeline.

The author is one of the foremost socialist ideologues of the country.

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