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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 13, March 20, 2010

Remembering Rammanohar Lohia

Saturday 20 March 2010, by Pritish Acharya

Between March 2009 and March 2010 Rammanohar Lohia’s (March 23, 1910-October 12, 1967) birth centenary has been celebrated across the country. Many meetings and seminars, yatras and padyatras have been organised and quite a few writings on him published. Without being noticed by the ‘national’ media, many of these celebrations and publications were outside Delhi and not in English. One such, the Sapta Kranti Vichar Yatra consisting of 25 youths, was started from Maharashtra in August 2009, and toured a number of States to spread the message of seven levels of revolution which Lohia had been focusing on as the basis of any social revolution in the country. These celebrations have gone much beyond the linguistic and physical boundary of Lohia’s mother tongue, Hindi, and native State, Uttar Pradesh. Lohia’s friends and followers in Maharastra, Goa, Kerala, Karnataka, Delhi, Bihar, Orissa and Assam and many other provinces have been as enthusiastic as those in his native state about these celebrations. They show that even nearly half-a-century after his death, Lohia continues to be remembered in different regions of the country. Further, because the Socialist Party with which he had been associated no more exists, this departed leader without any party becomes a rallying point for discussion and deliberations among political workers and intellectuals belonging to various parties. When leaders holding the official responsibility of the nation very often limit themselves to the narrow boundary of their region, caste and religion etc., this man, after so many years of his death, is discussed across the country in a number of dialects and languages. This is probably no small an achievement of his!

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Lohia was a great freedom fighter. When Bal Gangadhar Tilak passed away in August 1920, at the age of 10 years he had organised the condolence meeting in his school in Bombay. Thus, by paying tributes to the much revered nationalist leader he had shown his inclination to the anti-colonial politics of the time. In 1928, he actively participated in the Simon Boycott demonstrations making his nationalist association more apparent. In all these childhood and adolescent nationalist missions his father, Hiralal Lohia, had been his political guide and mentor. A Marwari from the Akbarpur village in the Faizabad district of UP, Hiralal had lost his wife when Rammanohar was a very small child. This personal tragedy relieved Hiralal of the familial bondage and got him to serious nationalist politics. The junior Lohia went to different places and met great dignitaries like Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the company of his father and got indoctrinated into nationalist politics without any resistance from the family. Later on he went to Berlin, studied economics and got his Ph.D degree. On his return from Germany he got involved in nationalist politics more intimately. His love for socialism, mother tongue-based learning and Gandhi, a mass leader rooted in the tradition and culture of the country, and intense disliking for Marxism, capitalism and Fascism had grown in him when he was in Germany. During the ‘Quit India’ movement, when the first-rung leaders of the Congress like Gandhi, Nehru and Patel were arrested, it was a group of second-rung youth and socialist leaders consisting of people like Jayaprakash Narayan, Rammanohar Lohia and Usha Mehta and a few others, who coordinated and led the movement. For this they either remained underground or fled away from jail. In 1944, Lohia was finally arrested and put behind bars. On his release from the jail, when independence from British rule had become imminent, Lohia, the irrepressible and die-hard nationalist, went to Goa and in a sense ignited the much aggressive and radical Goa Liberation movement against the more oppressive Portuguese rule there.

However, today Lohia is remembered more for his socialist thoughts rather than for his stature as a freedom fighter. As a socialist he argued that an exploitation less socialist society could not be conceived in India without rooting the idea of socialism in the culture, tradition and myths and legends of the land. They are the products of a specific social condition prevalent in India. Hence, they are important for understanding the social issues and finding remedies to them. They are also needed for making the idea comprehensible and acceptable to the larger mass of people. His idea of socialism aimed at liberating the nation from British colonialism as well as at unravelling the bridles of caste and gender etc. As his focus was on both nationalism and socialism he maintained some sort of a equidistance from both the Congress and Communists. This remained the distinct characteristic of his politics throughout the life.

Along with Acharya Narendra Dev, Jayaprakash Narayan, S.M. Joshi, Achyut Patwardhan and a few other youths he was in the forefront of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) which was formed in 1934. The CSP worked as a Left and radical pressure group within the Congress, but extended support to Gandhi, who according to many other Left and radicals was in no way a Leftist, at every crucial moment, including at the time of the controversy between Gandhi and Subhash Bose at the end of the 1930s and on the issue of launching the ‘Quit India’ movement in the midst of the Second World War. When the independence of the country became imminent, Lohia pressed for severing the CSP’s relationship with the Congress, which was fast converting from an organ of power into a party of power. In 1946, the CSP became a separate party. Gradually Lohia’s anti-Congressism and anti-communism became so virulent that he preferred to remain alone than in the company of those who were not overtly critical of the Congress or the Communists. When he found many of his old socialist friends diluting the twin issue of Opposition to the Congress and Communists and getting closer to either of them, he severed his association with them. This ‘undiluted’ national socialism, whose apparent form, as he felt, was equal distance from the Congress and Communists, no doubt made him a loner in the high political circle, but gave him a large following in the countryside and among the vernacular youth intelligentsia across the country, particularly when the Congress as a ruling party was not able to attract the idealist youths and the Communists were seen as upholding an ideology based on extra-territorial loyalty in the 1960s.

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Lohia believed that the socialist thoughts would be vibrant and stronger in India, only when it will base itself in the culture, tradition and legends of the country. That is why he alleged that Marxism ignored it because it was imported from Europe for weakening the base of socialism in Asia. Further, he argued that like capitalism, Marxism approved the large scale mechanisation of society. Despite being a die-hard atheist, he quite often gave the examples of mythical characters like Ram, Krishna, Sita, Draupadi, Savitri etc. for making his idea comprehensible and well acceptable to the common people.

He was deadly against the caste system, for it severely restricts an individual to a narrow cell. The innate capacity of an individual does not get adequate space for exploration because of the binding of the castes. If the so-called low castes suffer in a caste divided society, even the suffering of the upper castes is also not less.

Lohia opposed the domination of English in Indian society. He argued that when a foreign language like the English becomes the medium for administrative transactions as well as for schooling, it stifles the natural thought processes of the people. Further, as the language of command it widens the gap between educated and the uneducated and creates inferiority complex in the minds of the people. Lohia laid emphasis on the closure of English medium schools and learning in vernacular languages in schools for the sake of the nation. However, he also knew that in a multi-lingual country like India, a link language would be a necessity for inter-lingual communication, and for that the best possible alternative would be Hindi. As a product of the specific social conditions prevalent in India, Hindi, compared to English, would always be nearer and easier to learn for the people of various linguistic groups.

In 1963, Lohia became a Member of Parliament for the first time. During his tenure in Parliament, he pointed out that when the average per day income of an Indian is only three annas or barely 18 paisa, not less than Rs 25,000 everyday is being spent on the Prime Minister. Such a growing gap in expenditure between the common people and their elected representatives would severely jeopardise the foundations of democracy in India, he feared.

Lohia was a great supporter of gender equality. In place of Ramrajya, the ideal society should be named as Sita-Ram-Rajya, he used to say.

Lohia was distinct among the freedom fighters and socialists, because there was no gulf between his kathni (words) and karni (deeds). He was Western educated. He was from a Marwari household. Gandhi’s Marwari associates such as Birla and Bajaj had a great liking for him. By using these connections he could have risen to the top of the Congress hierarchy. He was so close to Jawaharlal Nehru that even he could have planned to become his political heir, the way earlier Nehru had become Gandhi’s. But, as an ‘undiluted’ nationalist he preferred to remain in the Opposition, for he believed that sustaining the ruling leaders on the democratic track was more necessary than becoming the ruling leaders in free India. It was more so, because the tradition of subservience to the ruling class here is quite strong. It was through persistent opposition to Nehru, his one-time political mentor, and the Congress, his political birthplace, he tried to create an atmosphere of defiance to the ‘undefiable’ rulers in the nascent democratic system of the country and helped it to eschew the path of autocracy. That is why, when the Emergency was imposed in 1975, the Lohia followers not only virulently and successfully opposed it, but also gave a large part of credit for their victory to Lohia, the leader who had departed a decade earlier. Today when democratic India is an aberration in the setting of autocracy in the subcontinent, the oppositional role of freedom fighters like Lohia in the post-independence period is surely an important cause behind this development.

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In order to play the role of an ideal Opposition Lohia took to the path of aparigraha (non-attachment to material property) in the true tradition of the sadhus and sanyasis of the country. As a public leader he did not acquire any material wealth, nor did he build any big bungalow for himself. He did not even have any family to succeed him in politics or at home. When he died in his place of stay at 7, Rakab-ganj in Delhi, he had left only a tin trunk, a few pair of khadi clothes and some books behind as his personal belongings. He had even instructed his friends to spend the minimum in his cremation. He lived and desired to die like a fakkad (penniless). When on the pretext of nation-building the ruling leaders were busy amassing personal property and political heirs, he deliberately refrained his colleagues from doing so at least until his death. Because he believed that the private life of a public man should be out and out open, he never desired to hide his relations with those of the other gender and otherwise unusual food habits. This was quite distinctive of his political-cum-personal life.

As stated earlier, Lohia died over four decades ago. The socialist parties he had helped to found in the arena of the national polity no more exist today. The number of people, who had direct acquaintance with him and saw him as a source of inspiration, is declining very fast. Aparigraha, which he focused so much in his life as the necessary prerequisite for a public leader, is quite unnoticeable today in public life. After the disintegration of Soviet Russia in the early 1990s socialism of any variety is only an utopia for many and a ‘tea-table issue’ for many others. Even in such a critical moment if Lohia is remembered and talked about across the country in a variety of vernacular languages, it is definitely a great matter to rejoice for all those who love their nation and hate exploitation in any form. Probably here lies the relevance of Lohia and his politics in today’s world.

Dr Pritish Acharya is a Reader in History, Regional Institute of Education. Bhubaneswar. He can be contacted at email-pritishacharya0123@yahoo.co.in

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62