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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 13, March 19, 2011

Dr Rammanohar Lohia: A Rebel Socialist and a Visionary

Saturday 19 March 2011


by Satya Mitra Dubey


Dr Rammanohar Lohia, a veteran freedom fighter, great visionary thinker, founder of the Indian socialist movement, a practitioner of Gandhian techniques of resistance and an active exponent of the idea of a world government,
was born on March 23, 1910, at Akbarpur, district Faizabad, UP. His death occurred on the October 12, 1967 in New Delhi’s Willingdon Hospital which was renamed as Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital after his death. His political followers along with academics, intellectuals, creative writers, artists, journalists —influenced by his ideas and actions—charted out a two-year plan (March 23, 2009 to March23, 2011) to celebrate his ‘Birth Centenary’ in India and abroad. On the occasion of his 99th birth day, on March 23, 2009, the starting day of the centenary celebrations, befitting programmes remembering this stormy petrel of Indian politics were held in different parts of India. Besides a large gathering of socialist workers, leaders, intellectuals, social workers, the New Delhi programme, held at Mavalankar Hall, was attended by Prof Paul Brass (USA), Prof Detlef Briesen (Germany) and representatives from the South Asian countries.

The birth centenary of Dr Lohia offered an opportunity to revisit his background, personality formation, political career, thought processes, ideological orientation and stimulated his followers to prepare a comprehensive plan to spread his vision of the restructuring of Indian society and the world system. The two-year span of his birth centenary was an occasion to discuss the utility of his approaches in the present-day context towards the place of caste and class in Indian society, preferential opportunities to the weaker sections, rightful place of Indian languages in official work and administration, history writing and researches in Indian universities. As a visionary thinker, he raised several theoretical issues pertaining to society, polity, economy and the world system such as cyclical movement of history and society, oscillation between class and caste, small machine driven production, wastage, consumerism and capital formation, equal irrelevance of capitalism and communism, elimination of inequality at the international level through a world parliament and an equal world order. These issues are more significant in the first decades of the 21st century where communism has collapsed and the world system based on the market economy and economic globalisation is confronted with severe economic crisis.

As regards Dr Lohia’s background, he received primary education at Akbarpur, passed High School from Mumbai (1920-25) in the First Division, Intermediate from Varanasi (1925-27) and did graduation (BA in English Hons) in First Division from Calcutta University (1927-29). Due to his deep interests in debates and extra-curricular activities, he missed First Division in the Intermediate examination. In Varanasi, he widely read Hindi literary texts and tried to understand Indian philosophy. After graduation, he went to Germany in 1929 to complete his Master’s course and obtain the doctorate degree. He obtained his doctorate degree in 1932 in Economics on the “Economics of Salt Satyagrah” from Humboltd (Berlin) University under the guidance of late Prof Werner Sombart, a noted economist. Since his early student days, he was deeply influenced by the freedom struggle, Congress politics, student and youth movements. During his stay in Mumbai and Kolkata, he developed command over the Marathi and Bangla languages. In Germany, he wrote his Ph.D thesis in German. He had good understanding of French. The impact of Hiralal Lohia, his father, his academic background, freedom struggle, participation in student movements, his polyglot character and close understanding of the socialist, communist and the Nazi movements in the Germany played a crucial part in giving a political orientation to and enhancing the intellectual insights of Dr Lohia.


AFTER returning to India in early 1933, he plunged into the freedom struggle. In May 1934, along with JP, Acharya Narendra Dev, Yusuf Meher-ali, Minoo Masani, Sampurnanand, Achyut Patwardhan, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, Ashok Mehta, S.M. Joshi, Sane Guruji, Sibnath Banerjee and Abdul Bari, he played a leading role in founding the Congress Socialist Party (CSP). From the very beginning, he was a member of its Organising and Executive Committees. He was appointed editor of the Congress Socialist, an English weekly of the party. Despite scant resources, he turned this weekly into a powerful medium for raising national and international issues. In his stormy political career, he was closely associated with the founding and editing of journals. In the post-independence period, he founded and edited the weekly Chauukhambha, monthly Jan, both in Hindi, and monthly Mankind in English.

In 1936, when Lohia was only 26 years old, the then Congress President, Jawaharlal Nehru, appointed him as the secretary of the foreign affairs wing of the Congress party and called him a “rising star” in Indian politics.

Lohia brought out a regular AICC bulletin on foreign affairs and published several booklets related to foreign policy, India and China, war in Spain and civil liberties. In one of the booklets of this period, titled Salient Points of the Indian Foreign Policy, he laid the foundation of the foreign relations of the Indian National Congress and this proved to be a precursor of independent India’s foreign policy. In September 1939 the Second World War broke out in Europe. Lohia wholeheartedly opposed the war efforts launched by the colonial administration in India. He was arrested and awarded a rigorous jail term. At that stage Gandhiji said: “I cannot sit still when I see Rammanohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan in jail. I do not know braver or straighter men than them.” Since then, Gandhiji was specially fond of Dr Lohia.

At the early stage of 1942, mainly the socialists in the Congress were instrumental in motivating Gandhiji to launch the ‘Quit India’ movement. Dr Lohia was the moving spirit behind the ‘Quit India’ movement and a leading light along with JP, Achyut Patwardhan, Aruna Asaf Ali, Usha Mehta in organising the underground revolutio-nary movement in 1942-44. He formed ‘Azad Dasta’, an underground group, and established its centres at Mumbai, Kolkata and Nepal. He operated the underground ‘Congress Radio Station’. Lohia was arrested in May 1944 in Mumbai and sent to the most notorious Lahore Fort Jail. He had to undergo the worst type of torture in jail. Dr Lohia and JP were almost the last political prisoners who were released from jail in April 1946.


ON his release from jail, there was a new phase of struggles in Lohia’s life. In June 1946 he was arrested in Goa by the Portuguese administration where he had gone to take some rest after the gruesome jail term. That proved to be the harbinger of Goa’s struggle for independence. Gandhiji supported Lohia’s action and openly admired his steps. Starting from his release from jail in 1946 till the assassination of Mahatma on January 30, 1948, it was a phase of very close bonds between Gandhiji and Dr Lohia. Lohia supported the movement launched by the Nepali Congress against the Rana regime in Nepal from its beginning in 1946 and he was arrested in May 1949 along with several socialist workers while protesting in front of the Nepal embassy in Delhi.

In March 1948, JP, Lohia, Narendra Dev along with other Socialist colleagues at their Nasik conference decided to quit the Congress and resolved to form a separate Socialist Party. The Socialists suffered defeat in the first general elections in 1952 and they tried to do some soul-searching exercise at the special convention of the party held at Panchmarhi in May 1952. Since 1952, there were different strands in the party regarding ideology, policy, programme and approach towards the Congress and Communists. JP joined the Bhoodan movement launched by Vinoba Bhave. Ashok Mehata propounded the thesis of the ‘compulsions of the backward economy’ which in practical terms pleaded for cooperation with the ruling Congress party. Lohia laid emphasis on the ‘policy of equidistance’ from the Congress and Communists. As a fallout, the KMPP led by Acharya Kripalani and the Socialist Party decided to merge together in September 1952 and the new party was named as the Praja Socialist Party (PSP). The differences among Lohia, JP and Asok Mehta were growing on the issue of cooperation with the Congress-led government. To resolve the differences, a special convention of the Socialist Party was held at Betul in June 1953. In the first week of January 1954 at the Allahabad Conference of the PSP, there was some patch up. Acharya J.B. Kripalani was elected Chairman of the party and Lohia was elected its General Secretary. During 1952-54, Lohia tried to revitalise the Indian socialist movement by giving fresh theoretical, ideological, programmatic and agitational foundations to it.

The imprint of the Gandhian framework was obvious on Lohia’s ideology when he emphasised on decentralisation, constructive programmes, non-violent protests and satyagraha. He wanted that the Socialist Party should place equal emphasis on vote (ballot), agitation (jail) and constructive work (spade). For the reorganisation of the Indian polity and economy, his emphasis was on democratic decentralsation through ‘Chaukhambha Raj’ where power and economy were to be equally divided among villages, districts, provinces and the Centre. In place of reservation, he pleaded for the principle of ‘Vishesh Awasar’ under which 60 per cent of the political and economic space for a specified period of time was to be secured for the backward classes—comprising the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Castes, backward among minorities and women. In place of class struggle based on violence and the elimination of class enemies, he practised the instruments of collective actions through civil disobedience and satyagraha against injustice, exploitation and tyranny. There was an unfortunate division in the socialist movement in India in 1955. In place of the PSP, Lohia revived the Socialist Party and as its Chairman, he worked very hard at the organisational, agitational, ideological fronts and launched a number of programmes to give the Socialist Party a distinct identity. His programmes of ‘Dam Bandho’ in this phase of inflation and economic crisis caused by consumerism, ‘Jati Todo’ in the rising wave of casteism, ‘Angreji Hatao’ in a downtrodden phase of Indian languages and ‘Himalaya Bachao’ with growing insecurity on the borders are more relevant than ever.

Throughout his life, Lohia was a man of action and a hero in leading powerful people’s movements against Portugal’s colonial rule in Goa (1946), against the Rana regime and for the restoraration of democracy in Nepal (1946, 1949), struggle in Rewa State (1950), peasants’ struggle in Kagodu, Shimoga, Karnataka (1951), peasants’ movement against increase in canal tax rate in UP (1954), movement in Manipur for the establishment of the State Assembly (1955) and All India Satyagraha launched by the Socialist Party (1957). In these movements, he was imprisoned and mostly released by courts. He was arrested in Arunachal Pradesh protesting against the ban on entry without permit (1958, 1959). In the USA while protesting against racial discrimination, he was detained (1964) and when the State Department apologised to him, he replied that they should apologise to the Statue of Liberty. There was a movement against hunger deaths in Bihar. He was arrested in that connection and released by the Supreme Court (1965). His struggles against the government’s callousness continued unabated and he was arrested in connection with the ‘UP Bandh’ (1966), jailed during the students’ strike in Delhi and was released by the Supreme Court (1966). In the process of struggles, he developed techniques of peaceful collective actions, non-violent civil disobedience against injustice and remodelled methods of mass protests through Satyagraha.

Dr Lohia was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1963. On his initiative, the first vote on a no-confidence motion against the Nehru Government took place in the Lok Sabha and his speech delivered at that time against the working of the government is regarded as a landmark in Indian parliamentary history. His strategic move to give concrete shape to ‘non-congressism’ and the formation of the Samyukt Socialist Party (SSP) were the two major developments in Indian politics during 1963-67. Lohia was the conceptual and practical architect of ‘non-congressism’. The political outcome of this experiment was visible in the 1967 elections when non-Congress governments were formed in nine States. At the peak of his political glory, only at the age of 57, his life-journey came to an end in October, 1967.


IN Lohia’s framework of social-economic transformation, politics is the real moving force. In his concept of political theory and practice, struggle and constructive work, democracy and civil disobedience (symbolically represented by spade, ballot and jail) are combined together. Like Marx, his emphasis was on struggle but he discarded the idea of violence. He tried to refine the Gandhian techniques of non-violence and Satyagraha (often based on fast and individual actions) by accepting non-violent methods of struggle but adding mass-based civil disobedience against injustice and exploitation.

He disagreed with the Marxist thesis of forces of production, surplus value and imperialism as the last stage of capitalism. Lohia was of the view that the techniques of production (huge machines, heavy technology, mass production) remain the same in the capitalist and communist systems. The only difference between them is on the forces of production and the ownership of the means of production. The private ownership of the means of production in the capitalist system is replaced by state ownership in the communist system but labour as a major force of production does not benefit from the surplus profit, remains alienated and does not become the master of his products. To correct the anomaly of both systems, Lohia’s emphasis is on the small machine driven tools of production and ownership under the control of cooperatives and communities.

In the Marxist analysis, imperialism is the last stage of capitalism. Lohia does not agree with this proposition. By citing concrete examples from the economic history of India, England, Western Europe and Africa, he has marshalled evidence to prove that imperialism practised by England and other Western European countries greatly contributed to the rise of capitalism in Europe. The rise of the first phase of capitalism in England was the result of the loot and capital flow from Bengal to England, followed by the occupation and economic exploitation of the whole of India, resulting in the capture of Africa, South-East Asia which led to the strengthening of the capitalist system in Europe. The same story was repeated in the case of Spain, France and Holland where the growth of capitalism largely depended on imperialist expansion and exploitation of resources of their colonies.

With the collapse of communism in Soviet Russia, East Europe, the rejection of it by China and the recent global economic crisis generated by capitalism based on market economy, the relevance of his theory of ‘equidistance’ has to be properly understood. He propounded that Indian and Asian socialism should be different from the European Marxist thought process of socialism, since historical, material and social conditions are different in the two continents. At the ideological level, the path of socialism must be distinct and at equal distance from the paths of capitalism and communism. The two latter systems are equally irrelevant in assuring freedom, equality and prosperity to mankind at large. In the era of military blocs of Cold War days, his view was that the countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America in general, and India in particular, should be at an equal distance from the Atlantic and Warsaw pacts. In place of the toothless idea of non-alignment, his stress was on the creation of a vibrant positive third bloc. Similarly, in domestic Indian politics, the socialists should be at an equal distance from the Congress and Communist parties.

In this unequal world order, his theory of seven revolutions or ‘Sapta Kranti’ for building a society based on male-female equality, elimination of colour discrimination, revolution against birth and caste based inequality, revo-lution against colonialism and for the establish-ment of the world parliament, revolution against inequality generated by private capital and for the growth of capital through planning, revolution against armaments and in favour of mass civil disobedience offer an alternative to create a just social system.

Apart from politics, his books—Marx, Gandhi and Socialism, Wheel of History, Fragments of a World Mind, Will To Power—and dozens of other booklets are clear testimony to his intellectual prowess. He had close contacts with leaders of the socialist movement all over the world and personal equations with some of the great minds of the world. This is evident from Harris Wofford’s book Lohia and America Meet and Rama Mitra’s Lohia Thru Letters. In the minds of some of the great names in Indian literature, art, films, journalism, judiciary and social sciences, his personality and thoughts left an indelible impresses. In several Indian universities Lohia’s thoughts are incorporated in courses and around a dozen Ph.D theses have been prepared on different aspects of his thoughts.


THE late decades of the 20th century saw the collapse of communism in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. At the same time at the global level, there was the rise of the market economy and economic globalisation as an extension of capitalism. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the capitalist system has been passing through phases of severe crises. In the form of a great human crisis, the First World War was the fallout of the contradictions among the capitalist-imperialist countries. As an alternative, there was a communist revolution in Russia (1917) and the Fascist takeover in Italy (1922). Both had faith in totalitarian systems and dictatorial regimes. The laissez-faire-based capitalist system faced another great challenge in the form of the ‘Great Depression’ (1929-32) and its one major outcome was the takeover of Germany by the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler. Mankind faced another crisis in the form of the Second World War generated by the cut-throat rivalry among imperialist powers represented by Britain and France on the one hand and Germany and Italy on the other. In the course of the war, the East European countries, Mongolia and North Korea were captured by the Red Army of Soviet Russia. The Communists succeeded in capturing power in China and Vietnam. Mankind had to face another crisis known as the Cold War between the capitalist countries led by America and the communist countries led by Soviet Russia.

The communist system collapsed in Russia, Central Asia and East Europe in the early 1990s, followed by the sudden upsurge of the market economy and the capitalist system at the global level. Communist China also adopted the policy of private ownership and market economy. Now, the perpetual story of capitalist crisis has surfaced again in 2008-09 in a more unmanageable form. There are inherent contradictions in the capitalist and communist systems. In these circumstances, Lohia’s thesis of ‘equal irrelevance’ of and ‘equi-distance’ from capitalism and communism has been vindicated.

On the occasion of his birth centenary, let us resolve to re-analyse Lohia’s intellectual contri-butions. Let us try to spread his re-examined messages of broad nationalism, democracy, socialism and the international order. As a nationalist, Lohia was a valiant fighter for Indian independence and his primary concern was to rebuild India through principled politics, approximate equality, decent standard of life, capital formation through control over wasteful expenditure and conspicuous consumerism, rightful place of Indian languages, elimination of castes and time-bound preferential opportunity for the backwards. His nationalism was not narrow. He was a champion of a new civilisation based on democracy, socialism, non-violence and disarmament. He was a great votary of an egalitarian international order and a world government. He considered himself a world citizen. Lohia’s theories of the twin origin of capitalism and imperialism, equal irrelevance of capitalism and communism, small unit machines, oscillation between class and caste, and permanent civil disobedience are today more useful and valid than ever before. During the course of his birth centenary, his ideas pertaining to society, polity, economy, culture, world system have been thoroughly discussed, examined and wherever found appropriate, as per the demands of time and place, they have been sought to be operationalised.

Prof Satya Mitra Dubey is a veteran sociologist, social-political analyst and a former Vice-Chancellor. He can be contacted at smdubey12@

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