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

Dr Lohia—Our Revolutionary Mentor

Saturday 21 March 2009, by Rajindar Sachar


On Dr Lohia’s birthday, we remember him with love and affection and as one of our top leaders of the socialist movement. He had a many-faceted personality. He was different from our other leades like JP. We had a reverence the JP, a certain kind of awe in his presence. There was no question of levity or extra talk—it was only the vision of a just socialist society that we listened to. But with Dr Lohia, while philosophical, political theories of socialist thought were no doubt a constant exchange, there was a lightness of conversation, a banter, a little bit of cynical talk—but of course without venom, more in a friendly manner.

It was in fortuitous circumstances that I was brought near to Dr Lohia. In May 1949. The Socialist Party under Dr Lohia’s leadership held a demonstration before the Nepal Embassy at Barakhamba Road, New Delhi to protest against the takeover of the Nepal Government by the Ranas and the forced fleeing of the King. We were arrested (about 50 of us including Dr Lohia) for violating Section 144 Cr.P.C. As a policy decision had been taken that none of us would be asking for bail, our prosecution was being done in jail (apparently the government was too embarrassed to prosecute Dr Lohia in open court). So we remained in jail for a month-and-a-half. Dr Lohia had an informal and easy mixing temperament. He liked to sit with all of us, exchanged serious policy matters and also light talk. So a close relationship came up which continued throughout. He had an informal life-style; so one never felt a distance which one may have felt between an average worker like myself and a leader of Dr Lohia’s stature. This was not only an experience of a few but many who claimed to be close to him.

I had become an active member (in fact chairperson) of the Socialist Party (Punjab branch). So my contact with Dr Lohia was quite frequent. There is a wrong impression that Dr Lohia was personally hostile to Pandit Nehru. There is no doubt that he was strongly critical of Nehru’s policies and criticised the latter strongly not only on political ideology but for his general philoso-phical outlook. But it is wholly unfair to analyse it as a personal rancour. The fact is that Dr Lohia had his earliest lessons in politics under Nehru’s leadership, and openly acknowledged that Nehru “was at one time my leader and teacher”. Whatever their differences, a certain bond of near-ness continued between them. This was reflected when we were in jail in 1949. Indira Gandhi sent a basket of mangoes for all of us. Good grace amongst politicians had not vanished at that time.


In 1951 before Lohia’s visit to the USA he had come to Delhi. I remember that we were talking in the sitting room when someone told him that there was a phone call for him. Dr Lohia went to the other room. When he came back I asked whose phone it was. He said Pandit Nehru’s. What did he say, I asked. Dr Lohia, in half-banter and annoyance, repeated the conversation thus:

Nehru—“Rammanohar, I hear you are going to the USA?”

Dr Lohia— “Yes.”

And there was a pause. Then again Nehru asked: “When?”

Dr Lohia—“Next week.”

Pause and then Pandit Nehru said “alright” and switched off.

It was a curious talk and I asked Dr Lohia what was the purpose in phoning, Dr Lohia, in half-banter, said: “You know, he wanted to tell me, ‘Rammanohar, you are going abroad. Do not criticise the government, when abroad.’ But did not have the guts to tell me.” And then Dr Lohia, in half-annoyance and anger, said: “What a strange behaviour—does he think I will talk ill of the government when abroad?” Such was their closeness, and yet they were so apart. Of course, I know the apprehension of Nehru was somewhat correct because Dr Lohia could not but comment when in the USA on some of the international policies of the Government of India—but there was no wholesale criticism. However, when Lohia met Einstein he could not restrain and in answer to the latter’s questions remarked that “politicians are liars”. Einstein was normally sobriety personified, but he added warmly that “they were criminals”. Would Einstein have been able to find adequate words now? I doubt it.

It must be recognised that the reverence and hero worship for Nehru was normal and strong not only of Dr Lohia’s generation, but even of my generation who had been brought up on the heroism, sacrifice and intellectualism of Pandit Nehru—for my father, right throughout his life Pandit Nehru represented almost an icon of perfection in patriotism and intellect. I remember basking in Nehru’s presence when he came to Lahore to canvass for my father’s Assembly election. Again when in 1945, after his release from prison, Pandit Nehru, while going to Srinagar, broke his journey at Lahore—my father had invited him and some other important leaders for an informal get-together at our place. I remember the awe, inspiration, admiration and respect which all of us felt in his presence. I am mentioning this to highlight Dr Lohia’s strange love/anger relation-ship with Pandit Nehru, because I myself had a very personal experience in 1955, which in later years made me feel stupid; and yet it shows the different phases one passes through.

In 1955 the Punjab High Court at Chandigarh was to be formally inaugurated by Pandit Nehru. I was then the General Secretary of the High Court Bar Association. Pandit Nehru had come to Chandigarh the evening before. My father, who was then the Chief Minister of Punjab, invited Pandit Nehru for breakfast at his residence in the morning. I was staying with father though my office was in another sector. Here was an occasion for a young man like me, who had hero worshipped Pandit Nehru from his waking period—and amongst the earlier books which had inspired me were Nehru’s Autobiography, and Letters from Prison to Indira. But then I had grown up, become a full-blooded socialist and was still in the thirties. We in the party were convinced (rightly or wrongly, time alone will tell) that Pandit Nehru, who had shown the vision of socialism to us, had not kept that pace following wrong policies. Our disappointments with his policies were deep. I was a small fry in part of that milieu. So I told father that I will not be at the breakfast table to receive Pandit Nehru, though my wife will certainly be there along with my mother to play the hostess and look after the arrangements. My father and I had a beautiful understanding and our sense of values and respecting each other’s views were the same. That is why he accepted my hesitation though he mentioned that I was being childish. I thereafter went out of the residence to my office before Pandit Nehru arrived for breakfast. I had even at that time such admiration for Nehru that I could not think of being at home and be rude by not joining for breakfast. Of course, I behaved absolutely correctly and all of us, office-bearers, received Pandit Nehru with all the dignity and respect and deference due to him when he came to the High Court to inaugurate it.

Later on and now I laugh at my presumptuous-ness—a chit of boy, whom Pandit Nehru will not even notice, beating his chest by absenting himself and denying to himself such a close breakfast meeting with one of the greatest of leaders of all time and who had been a hero of our family. But I take it that such are the peculiarities of radical youth, the devil-may-care attitude and the almost fatalistic belief in the rightness of the cause of one’s own party. But then, I suppose, that is the real difference between youth and old age—one may laugh now, but one does not demean it because at that time it represented what I like to feel was a youthful, genuine and unshakeable faith in a socialist society—which faith, fortunately, I have still not lost.


Dr Lohia was very particular and sensitive in avoiding any reference to his personal top position in public life. I remember he was to appear as a witness in an election petition which had been filed against Mani Ram Bagri, our socialist candidate from Hissar. I was the Advocate for Bagri. Dr Lohia was to be examined as a witness. He told me that I should not ask him, as he assumed normally witnesses are asked to give their background to establish their position in public life and status. I told him I had no such intention because if the judge did not already know about the stature and position of Dr Lohia, I was not going to belittle Dr Lohia by giving his history. As expected, the judge naturally knew about Dr Lohia’s position and status. Maybe his suggestion was a small little sensitivity that his political standing should not be told to the court who on its own should be expected to know about it. I am mentioning this to show how Dr Lohia looked at each small point in detail.

I had the privilege of Dr Lohia coming on tour and staying with me in Chandigarh at my residence for two days. As I said, Lohia never behaved like a stiff political leader. I remember we had a public meeting in the evening—the morning was free. I had an important engagement in the morning. But Dr Lohia wanted to go around Chandigarh and was willingly taken out for a cup of coffee by our district Socialist Party comrades. Dr Lohia’s simplicity and spontaneous companion-ship made even the smallest worker easy.

I remember, however, a very pained Lohia when he was staying with me at Chandigarh the next morning. News had come that anti-Hindi agitators in the South had burnt Hindi periodicals. I still see him sitting quietly with a sad look on his face in the verandah lawn of my house at Chandigarh and telling me softly: “Rajindar, the movement for is dead—when it will be revived I do not know.” Dr Lohia was not a Hindi chauvinist. He was for the Indian languages, he believed that the presence of the English-knowing minority, of which even now there are only four per cent, will never let the poor become the vehicle of politics. He accepted the supremacy of the Tamil and Telugu languages in their respective States. He was only insistent that the States should communicate with the Centre in their own regional languages and the Centre was bound to reply in the State’s language. He could not understand why Hindi-speaking States should not correspond with the Centre in Hindi, which was the official language. He was not against the English language as such. He was of the view that in no democratic state, bureaucracy can effectively work for people’s policies unless the administration is carried out in the language in the state. The present use of State languages in the administration, though not fully satisfactory, shows the vision he saw decades ago, is now being recognised, though slowly.


His greatest contribution to the political thought is on the role of the castes in India. He was the first political thinker to put forward the startling truth that caste and class are interchangeable in our Indian conditions. I remember him telling us that the Communist Party considered this formulation as an anathema to revolutionary politics (though they later on accepted it). He, finding in them this reluctance to accept the Indian reality, told them once in annoyance and in a lighter vein that they had read the English translation of Karl Marx but he read Marx in the original, as he had studied in Germany.

He described the philosophy of caste thus:

The gap between the hundred million Dvijas on the one side, and the two hundred million Shudras on the other is so wide that no political party has as yet undertaken to fill it up. Political life in India is not clean. Nepotism, jobbery, opportunism, flattery, non-adherence to truth and a tendency to twist doctrines to suit particular motives are some of the traits of Dvija leadership. These traits will remain with the Dvijas unless they make a conscious effort to bridge the gulf between themselves and the Shudras. The Shudra too has his shortcomings. He has an even narrower sectarian outlook. Once in office, the Shudra tries to perpetuate himself by having recourse to dirty sectarian methods. He cannot achieve a broadness of outlook. In spite of all this, not only must the Shudras be now pushed to positions of power and leadership, our sustained efforts should be made to enable them to imbibe a broad cultural outlook so that the stagnant waters of the country’s social life may flow, and the Dvijas and Shudras both shed their weaknesses. It is futile to talk of revolutionary politics unaccompanied by efforts for social change. Only that political party has a future now in the country, which would make itself the spearhead of this social revolution and by its organisation herald a new dawn. This division of Indian society into hundreds if not thousands of caste, which have a political as much as a social significance, explains why India wilts before foreign armies. When she has not so wilted in her history, it has almost always been those periods when the bonds of caste were loose. A great misreading of Indian history is current. The tragic succession of foreign conquests, to which the Indian people have succumbed, is ascribed to internal quarrels and intrigues. That is nonsense. The largest single cause is caste. It renders nine-tenths of the population into onlookers, in fact, listless and nearly completely disinterested spectators of grim national tragedies.

The Indian experience of caste goes farther than that of any other nation and all the world may have lessons to learn from it. At the moment, we are concerned with the terrifying damage castes have done India and how she may rid himself of it. The entire scale of values has been upset.

The system of caste is a terrifying force of stability and against change, a force that stabilises all current meanness, dishonour and lie. An unholy fear prevails, lest if some meanness or lie were to tumble the whole structure that might topple. Post-freedom India is but a strict continuance of British India in most essential ways. The Indian people continue to be disinherited. They are foreigners in their own land. Their languages are suppressed and their bread is snatched away from them. All this is done for the alleged sake of certain high principles. And these principles tie up with the system of caste, the great chasm between the few high-castes and the four hundred million of the lower-castes.

He always found Delhi heartless and removed from the reality in the country (I feel that still holds true). Dr Lohia described Delhi thus:

Furthermore, where is the base for summit politics? Whevever I come to Delhi, a sense of overwhelming despair seizes me. There is no fundamental question of theory or even of enduring politics. One hears nothing but gossip about succession, interlarded with spicy stories of what the Other Side has been doing in connection with money, women or foreign relations. The worm is eating into Delhi’s heart.


There is another misunderstanding that Dr Lohia did not give due regard and respect to JP. How wrong it is! Dr Lohia himself told me about it. When JP, after the general elections and not-so-successful Bhoodan movement, was leading a semi-retired life, Dr Lohia was convinced that in order to revive the socialist movement JP’s leadership was mandatory. He told us that he went to JP at Patna and told him: “Jai Prakash, utho (get up)—you alone can electrify the country.”

This clearly shows the realism of Dr Lohia and respect for JP—but JP was reluctant and expressed his hesitation saying he had no one left to understand him. Dr Lohia, friendly mischievous as he was, told him: “Come on! You have at least Prabhavati. I have, on the other hand, none.” Such were the banters of the giants. I still recollect JP’s oration at Lohia’s cremation at Delhi when JP, overwhelmed with sentiment, said: “Rammanohar, you were younger—your place was not there! If anybody, it should have been mine.” What a beautiful relationship and political comradeship!

Dr Lohia gave a slogan, the sheet-anchor of Democratic Socialism, thus: spade-prison-vote—where spade symbolised constructive activity, prison stood for peaceful struggle against injustice and the vote for political action.

Unfortunately all the political parties, including those who call themselves Leftists, with rare exception, have only one item in their list of work—‘vote’. But this will not transform the society and we will remain mired in small squabbles.

March 23rd is also the day of martyrdom of one of the greatest revolutionaries of our age—Sardar Bhagat Singh. I have no doubt that both of them would have been the closest of kindred souls as they shared, above all, their compassion for the poor and their determination to fight for his rights to enable him to get his just dues in the society.

I salute the memory of these two great inspirational souls.

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