Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan: A Legacy Discarded

On his birth anniversary comes the sobering realisation that if Narayan were to come alive today, he would be vilified as an ‘anti-national’ and ‘patriotic nationalists’ would be baying for his blood.

Freedom was at the forefront of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas. For him, hate and fear were the worst enemies of freedom. But today’s ruling establishment is governing the country through hatred and fear. Where then is the freedom for which Gandhiji lived, fought and died for?

Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), whose 117th birth anniversary falls on October 11, was among the twelve apostles of the Mahatma and had been a front-soldier during the Indian freedom struggle. In this fight, JP imbibed a combination of ahimsa and aggression.

One sparkling instance shows JP’s mettle: On the Diwali night of November 8, 1942, JP escaped from the high-security Hazaribagh Jail and a massive manhunt was launched by the British regime to capture him ‘dead or live’. This episode inflamed the fading ‘Quit India Movement’, launched on August 8 that year by Gandhiji, and eventually lead to the collapse of the colonial empire and India’s freedom.

A.P. Sinha, a co-prisoner and friend, whom JP tried to persuade to also escape, had this to say:

“JP, I am sorry I cannot make the break with you…. Let me help to cover your getaway. You have got the passion that can make people’s spirits soar up. You can inspire them to self-sacrifices, to accept sufferings. You are a great national leader”.

The national emergency proclaimed on the night of June 25, 1975, and the terror that followed proved how prophetic Sinha was about JP. During the 20 months of the Emergency, there was gloom all around as the world’s largest democracy was slowly but surely sliding into dictatorship.

Also read: Past Continuous: How Jayaprakash Narayan Helped the RSS Overcome Its Stigmatic Past

But through this all, one single soul, one lonely spirit, continued to stir in anguish and agony, for the first six months in captivity at Chandigarh and later attached to a dialysis machine at Bombay’s Jaslok Hospital and a spartan house at Patna. Yet, this defiant, indomitable spirit in JP dared the might of Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship and defeated it in less than two years, thereby restoring Indian democracy. He did this despite being in the frailest of health and living on borrowed time. I am a living witness to this.

Former US President, Bill Clinton had once declared: “The story of 20th century is the triumph of freedom. We must never forget the meaning of the 20th century or the gifts of those who worked and marched, who fought and died for the triumph of freedom”.

JP was among India’s tallest leaders who had ‘worked and marched, fought and died’ for independence and the triumph of freedom in a country which is home to one-sixth of the human race. JP did it not once, but twice – fighting for freedom from foreign rule under Gandhiji’s leadership and later winning it back from a native coterie, which brought in ‘emergency rule’ through the back door, under his own stewardship. With the current trend of events, could the story of the 21st century be the defeat of freedom?

Be that as it may, there is a common belief that post-Independence, the Indian National Congress claimed the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, captured political power and ruled India for decades. Similarly, there is a belief that the Bharatiya Janata Party claimed JP’s legacy, captured political power in 1999 and again in 2014, and is ruling the country now.

It is a fact that both the RSS and its political wing, the BJP, have been laying claim to JP’s legacy. Among the tributes paid to him, the most poignant one came from former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, when he said:

“JP was not merely the name of one person; it symbolised humanity. When one remembered Mr Narayan two pictures came to one’s mind. One was reminded of Bishmapitamah lying on a bed of arrows. The second picture was one of Christ on the Cross and Mr Narayan’s life reminded one of Christ’s sacrifices”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called JP his “guiding beacon” and an icon and had pledged to carry forward his legacy.

Also read: The Emergency, and the BJP’s Hidden History of Student Protest

The legacy of JP is akin to that of the Mahatma and echoes him on issues that have cropped up in the post-Gandhi era. All of them are topical and in JP’s own words:


“Freedom became one of the beacon lights of my life and it has remained so ever since… Above all it meant freedom of the human personality, freedom of the mind, freedom of the spirit. This freedom has become a passion of my life and I shall not see it compromised for food, for security, for prosperity, for the glory of the state or for anything else.”


“India’s democracy is to rise storey by storey from the foundation, consisting of self-governing, self-sufficient, agro-industrial, urbo-rural local communities — gram sabha, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad—that would form the base of Vidhan Sabhas and the Lok Sabha. These politico-economic institutions will regulate the use of natural resources for the good of the community and the nation.


“Idea of development envisages independent India as sui generis, a society unlike any other, in a class of its own that would not follow the western pattern of mega industrialisation, urbanisation and individuation. India’s would be agro-based people’s economy that would chart out a distinct course in economic growth, which would be need-based, human-scale and balanced while conserving nature and livelihoods.

Such a ‘development’ process would be democratic and decentralised.  The best development model for India is diversified, democratic decentralised and value-added agriculture as the root, manufacturing small/medium industries as trunk and branches and widespread service sector as a canopy. The almost universal tendency for a centralised political, economic model, and social system that is associated with both of them should be abandoned.”

Jawaharlal Nehru with Jayaprakash Narayan. Photo: http://www.nehrumemorial.nic.in/


“Although almost every religious community had its own brand of communalism, Hindu communalism was more pernicious than the others because Hindu communalism can easily masquerade as Indian nationalism and denounce all opposition to it as being anti-national.”


“Those who attempt to equate India with Hindus and Indian history with Hindu history are only detracting from the greatness of India and the glory of Indian history and civilisation. Such person, paradoxical though this may seem, are in reality the enemies of Hinduism itself and the Hindus. Not only do they degrade the noble religion and destroy its catholicity and spirit of tolerance and harmony, but they also weaken and sunder the fabric of the nation, of which Hindus form such a vast majority.”

Hindu Rashtra

“In ‘the long struggle for national freedom there emerged a clear enough concept of a single, composite, non-sectarian Indian nationhood’. All those who spoke about divisive and sectarian nationalism were therefore outside the pale of this nationalism, evolved during the freedom struggle. The hostile and alienating nationalism we hear about today is antithetical to the ethos of freedom struggle and against the belief of all those who helped it evolve.”

Also read: How the CIA Sponsored Indian Magazines that Engaged the Country’s Best Writers


“When, following Gandhiji’s murder, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was under a shadow, there were many protests made about its being entirely a cultural organisation. But apparently emboldened by the timidity of the secular forces, it has thrown its veil away and has emerged as the real force behind, and controller of, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. The secular protestations of the Jana Sangh will never be taken seriously unless it cuts the bonds that tie it so firmly to the RSS machine. Nor can the RSS be treated as a cultural organisation as long as it remains the mentor and effective manipulator of a political party. (1968)

RSS identifies the Indian nation with Hindu Rashtra. Such identification is pregnant with national disintegration, because members of other communities can never accept the position of second-class citizens. Such a situation, therefore, has in it the seeds of perpetual conflict and ultimate disruption. RSS should ‘give up the concept of Hindu Rashtra and adopt in its place Indian nationhood, which is a secular concept and embraces all communities living in India’.” (1977)


“The Hindu concept that a cow’s life is inviolate is the outcome not of any primitive taboo, because beef was a common food of Hindu society at one time, but of the gradual moral and spiritual development of the Indian people in which non-Vedic Hindu religions such as Jainism and Buddhism perhaps took the lead. In the course of time, respect for human life grew and non-violence came to be more and more emphasised in human relations.”


“It will be a suicide of the soul of India, if India tried to suppress the Kashmiri people by force. Rather than rely on repression, what the government of India can do is go back to the time when the state had acceded to India only in three subjects [i.e. defence, foreign affairs, and communications]. This would mean providing for the fullest possible autonomy. If, in Kashmir, ‘we continue to rule by force and suppress these people and crush them or change the racial or religious character of their state by colonisation, or by any other means, then I think that means politically a most obnoxious thing to do’.”

“Kashmir has distorted India’s image for the world as nothing else has done. The only way to get rid of this black mark on Indian democracy was to assure the Kashmiris ‘full internal autonomy, i.e., a return to the original terms of the accession’. To think that we will eventually wear down the people and force them to accept at least passively the Union is to delude ourselves. That might conceivably have happened had Kashmir not been geographically located where it is. In its present location, and with seething discontent among the people, it would never be left in peace by Pakistan.”

We see today that the Gandhi-JP legacy has not only been turned on its head but mingled in the dust. If JP were to come alive today, he would be vilified and abused as an ‘anti-national’ with ‘patriotic nationalists’ baying for his blood. Is the ‘New India’ on offer?

M.G. Devasahayam is a former IAS officer hailing from Kanyakumari district.