Today, October 11, is the 121st birth anniversary of Jayaprakash Narayan.
On May 28, 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, carrying the Sengol, inaugurated the new parliament building with great fanfare on the 140th birth anniversary of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and placed his portrait on a pedestal.
Lok Sabha speaker and ministers paid handsome tributes to Savarkar. In the ‘Mann ki Baat’ episode that followed, Modi serenaded thus: “Veer Savarkar’s personality was one of strength and magnanimity. His fearless and self-respecting nature could not tolerate the mindset of slavery.”
Incidentally, in an article published on May 26, 1920, in Young India, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, under the title, ‘Savarkar Brothers’: “Both these brothers have declared their political opinions and both have stated that they do not entertain any revolutionary ideas… They both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary, they feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British.”
Could there be a clearer expression of the fact that Savarkar had the “mindset of slavery” and did not want India’s freedom from the British?
On the other end of the spectrum was Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) whose 121st birth anniversary falls on October 11, 2023.
At the height of India’s independence movement in 1940 the Mahatma, in a letter to the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, wrote this: “The arrest of Shri JP is unfortunate. He is an authority on socialism… He is a fine fighter for freedom. He has forsaken all for the sake of deliverance of his country. His industry is tireless. His capacity for suffering is not to be excelled…”
JP’s quality of a “fine fighter for freedom” became evident when the ‘Quit India Movement’ was launched in August 1942 with Gandhiji virtually declaring Independence. Inside Hazaribagh jail, JP was feeling frustrated in not being able to actively participate in this historic movement.
So, on the night of Deepavali (Hindu festival) in November 1942, he along with five others, escaped the high-security jail by scaling a 17-foot-high wall while the guards remained distracted by the festivities. His hot pursuit by the British – who placed a reward of Rs. 10,000/- on his head – electrified the nation and the Quit India Movement that eventually led to India’s freedom.
Talking of freedom, in the dying moments of the 2nd millennium, standing on the ramparts of the Lincoln Memorial at Washington DC, US President Bill declared: “The story of the 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 had ‘worked and marched, fought and died for the triumph of freedom’ of this country, afflicted with slavery, poverty and penury for the best part of the 20th century. And he did it not once, but twice – as a fiery fighter for freedom from alien rule under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership (1947) and later winning it back from the native ‘durbar’ under his own stewardship (1977). This is a rarity, unparalleled in the annals of world history.
It is in this context what eminent jurist Nani Palkhiwala wrote in his book, We, the People: India, the Largest Democracy, becomes relevant:
“…Since public memory is so alarmingly short, let us reiterate our gratitude to the men who suffered in diverse ways and whose sacrifices made the restoration of freedom possible. The first name that springs to anyone’s mind is that of Jayaprakash Narayan. Not since the time of Gandhiji has moral force – personified by a frail invalid – triumphed so spectacularly over the forces of evil. He changed decisively the course of history. One life transformed the destiny of 620 million.”
Yes, JP transformed the destiny of 620 million people in 1977. If JP had wished, he could have become the prime minister then. But he did not. Despite Jawaharlal Nehru being so keen that JP succeeded him as prime minister, he spurned the offer in 1964 when Nehru passed away. Instead, he became, after Mahatma Gandhi, the second liberator of the nation, freeing the country from the shackles of a home-brewed dictatorship imposed during the Emergency.
Sometimes leaders scale such lofty heights of national eminence that they become too big for a mundane office. In post-Independence India, JP never occupied any official seat of power but built abiding institutions – Socialist Party, Citizens for Democracy, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Chatra Sangharsh Samiti – to carry forward his passion for freedom and fraternity. No wonder, he was regarded as the nation’s conscience keeper and patron saint.
All nations, most of all India, need an icon to which they can cleave when times are bad, and who can unite them across barriers of caste, creed, clan and language. The mid-70s were bad days and through the draconian and repressive regime of the Emergency and the ‘era of discipline’ positioned against ‘anarchy and chaos,’ Indira Gandhi was positioning herself as that icon.
If she had succeeded, the ‘iconship’ would have passed on to young Sanjay Gandhi who was waiting in the wings. With age in his favour and his known dislike for the democratic process, India would have turned into an autocracy. A real alternative was needed to prevent this tragedy from happening and JP with his towering personality, indomitable courage and aura as the hero of ‘Quit India Movement’ eminently filled the bill and emerged as the icon of a resurgent India.
The greatest crisis in India today is the absence of leaders of JP’s calibre. Hence the near-collapse of democracy and constitutional governance. There was this prayer of yore which I used to silently recite during the dark days of Emergency:
“God, Merciful God;
Because a dark deepening crisis is engulfing this beloved land of ours, give us men a time like these demands; Honest men, men of strong minds, of big hearts and true faith and ready hands; Men whom the lust for power will not corrupt; Men whom the spoils of office will not buy; Men for whom service to the nation will come before their selves. Men who will not lie; Men who will not indulge in gimmickry; Men who will not feed us on slogans or on stunts.
Give us, O God;
Give us men of Honour, of Integrity; Men who can and will stand up to demons of demagogy; Men who will not yield to treacherous flatterers; Men who will rise above the fog and fluff of mock adulation; God, give us such men as a trying and testing time like this demand.”
God responded and gave us JP who got India’s second freedom. Though such leadership is required much more today, god seems to have turned his back on India, and its billion-plus people! This is evident from the way JP’s ideas and ideologies have been betrayed and belittled by the Sangh parivar who rode on his shoulders to capture power. This has reached its zenith in the last nine years or so where Savarkar has been elevated as the ruling party’s icon.
This is a direct affront to JP who had trashed the vicious, communal and polarising agenda of ‘Hindutva’ established by Savarkar on which Modi’s politics and governance survive.
“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 civilization. Such persons, 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,” JP said in a speech, originally delivered in Hindi at a Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) training camp in Patna on November 3, 1977.
JP was equally harsh on Hindu Rashtra and squarely condemned the “hostile and alienating nationalism we hear about today which is antithetical to the ethos of freedom struggle and against the belief of all those who helped it evolve.” As for RSS, he wanted it to either disband itself or 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.
JP has been facing criticism for providing a platform, political acceptance and respect to the RSS. Though true, this needs to be looked at from a proper perspective.
During the Emergency, when he was in prison, JP wrote a letter addressed to the people of Bihar in which he explained his motive. “By incorporating them in the Sampoorna Kranti Andolan (JP Movement) I have tried to de-communalise them (RSS and Jana Sangh).” The fact is that RSS bosses facing the stigma of Gandhi’s assassination were keen to ensnare JP who was considered the champion of the freedom movement and the moral heir to the Mahatma. This was the strategic objective of the RSS and they have partially succeeded.
Also read: How the RSS Betrayed Jayaprakash Narayan
But it must be remembered that JP was never a supporter of the RSS’ communal agenda and politics. It was the Sangh’s deceitful strategies and promises – that it had accepted the aims of socialism and Sarvodaya – that undid JP.
He had made his position clear when he told Jyoti Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), in 1974, that “if you join” the movement “these fellows [i.e., the RSS] will run away.” JP suggested that he had taken RSS on board only for pragmatic reasons, for “our party is not there, nothing is there, and they have an organisation.”
Had Basu responded and the communists joined the JP Movement in full force, the political and economic landscape of India would have been vastly different. RSS was aware of this and therefore nursed a visceral hatred towards JP.
This hatred was displayed on August 12, 2023 when the building that housed the Sarva Sewa Sangh co-founded by JP, in Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, was brutally bulldozed by the BJP government.
So, while it is the ‘sceptre’ for the pampered zealot who “did not want freedom from the British” it is the ‘junkyard’ for the forlorn patriot who fought and died for the triumph and enrichment of that freedom. Indeed, this is New India – or should I say, Naya Bharat?
M.G. Devasahayam is a former IAS officer hailing from Kanyakumari district.