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The bitter irony of Jayaprakash Narayan's legacy

While many of today’s political generation cut their teeth on the JP movement, they seem to be going against the first principles of their former leader

JP was owned by everyone but few truly followed him in spirit.
JP was owned by everyone but few truly followed him in spirit. (Photograph by Raghu Rai)

“A slave has no obligation to defend his slavery. His only obligation is to destroy his bondage. I hope we shall know how to defend ourselves when we have achieved our freedom.” —Jayaprakash Narayan

Today in India, dissent, protest, opposition and anything that goes against the majoritarian sentiment is often labelled “anti-national”. The spaces for independent thinking, free discussion of ideas and openness to differences are shrinking. The government claims a monopoly over values that define India, and there is a gradual emptying of the ideals and meaning of the Constitution. In these times, Jayaprakash Narayan’s statement pleading guilty for obstructing the war effort in 1940 rings loud and clear. More than 70 years after independence, we need to ask ourselves if we have done enough to defend our freedom.

It is in many ways ironic that democracy is being diminished by a generation for whom Narayan (JP, as he was known) was a leader and hero. The JP movement in the 1970s aimed at “saving democracy”, among other things. JP guided it and set the agenda, chalked out programmes and controlled its direction and scope. A typical Indian leader today is likely to be from the Emergency-JP movement generation. This political generation cut its teeth and learnt its initial lessons in politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Today it holds positions of power both in government and political parties. It boggles the mind that the same generation which opposed infringements on rights and liberties and defended constitutional values is now going against the essential spirit of the movement and the Constitution.

Bimal and Sujata Prasad’s The Dream Of Revolution: A Biography Of Jayaprakash Narayan could not have, therefore, come at a more opportune time. It holds a mirror to us, encourages us to reflect on what has gone wrong and why dissent is necessary to preserve democracy. Though biographies come in many hues as a genre, they use the lens of the subject of the work to examine events during that person’s life. Like most academic biographies, the authors present a chronological account of the life and times of JP, relying on personal as well as public collections, private papers and archival materials. Bimal Prasad, in fact, had earlier put together 10 volumes of the selected works of JP, and the biography draws from that project.

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This biography successfully captures two elements in JP’s life. First, it maps the arc of ideas and insights that inspired him and guided his actions. We find that JP’s inspirations came full circle during his lifetime. In his formative years, his imagination was spurred by the leading nationalist leaders of the time, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and M.K. Gandhi. When he pursued higher studies in the US, Marxism, Communism and M.N. Roy became attractive. He dreamt of radicalising the national movement, overthrowing British rule and ushering in a socialist revolution in India. This phase also led him to compare and question Gandhi’s propositions. The authors note that he was not sure Gandhi would hold steadfast to the principle of equality.

JP’s fascination for a socialist revolution continued after he returned to India and started working for the Congress, for he met Achyut Patwardhan, Minoo Masani and Asoka Mehta, who thought on similar lines. Together with others, like Narendra Deva, Ram Manohar Lohia and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, they hoped to radicalise the Congress; this culminated in the formation of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in 1934. JP’s tract, Why Socialism, articulated a clear vision of socialism and made him a theoretician of the party. The CSP acted as a pressure group within the Congress and was successful, at the very least, in preventing it from adopting an overtly conservative stand. This phase saw JP support varied causes, including peasants, labour and even armed insurrectionary movements.

The Dream Of Revolution: By Bimal Prasad and Sujata Prasad, Vintage Books 272 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
The Dream Of Revolution: By Bimal Prasad and Sujata Prasad, Vintage Books 272 pages, 799.

Since the CSP was opposed to the constitutional line, it lost an opportunity to translate its radical socioeconomic agenda into reality in the Constituent Assembly. The party attempted to walk a tightrope between supporting the interim government while highlighting its failures and opposing its “anti-people” policies. It was around this time, in the late 1940s, that a more mature JP emerged.

He began to question the rigid and dogmatic Marxian line and emphasised that the road to socialism would take different contradictory paths. He underlined the dangers of totalitarianism and believed Marxist thought had to be adapted to India’s context. He progressively began to incorporate Gandhian ideas and techniques into his socialist vision.

Post-independence, he increasingly became disillusioned with party politics and turned to the Gandhian path of sarvodaya (progress of all) under the influence of Vinoba Bhave. JP experimented with gramdan, a programme that encouraged voluntary communisation of land, encouraged sampattidan, giving away personal wealth, and committed full-time jeevandan to sarvodaya.

The second element that comes out strongly is the nature of relationships JP had. While Gandhi, it appears, was more of a father figure, Jawaharlal Nehru a brother and Rajendra Prasad an elderly adviser, Sardar Patel and JP shared a frosty relationship. The CSP’s attempt to become a full-fledged party put JP on a collision course with Patel. Their differences in approaches, techniques and ideological positions were primarily responsible for the polarisation, and despite several attempts at reconciliation, they were not always on the same page.

JP differed with Masani and Lohia too, though they were on the same side. While Masani was wary of the communists, Lohia was suspicious of Nehru, to whom JP was attached.

The relationship between JP and his wife, Prabhavati, is perhaps the most touching. Their ideological choices and commitments were a wedge in their relations. Since their marriage as children, Prabhavati was more absent than present. She spent her life in Gandhi’s ashram and attempted to live up to Gandhi’s principles. Though her celibacy vow caused great emotional pain to JP, he respected her decision. It was only towards the later part of his life that their ideological positions converged. Her death devastated JP.

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While The Dream Of Revolution is informative, it is also a tad disappointing. Despite the access the authors had to JP, his associates and material, there is hardly anything we don’t already know, except for his “hidden love life”. Maybe JP’s life was an open book, with very few unknowns.

The book is also disappointing because it is so absorbed in rescuing JP and ensuring his rightful place in history that it fails to question his shortcomings.

JP is celebrated for his opinions as well as the people he supposedly inspired. Over time, he became more important for what he symbolised. The events leading up to the Emergency and the events that followed are testimony to JP’s marginalisation. While he was owned by everyone, no one truly followed him in spirit, except for those who advocated the path of sarvodaya. For instance, JP was used by non-Congress parties to channelise people’s disenchantment to dislodge the Congress from power.

While the events in the book are far removed from today, in many ways they underscore how so-called people’s movements can be captured by forces antithetical to the goals of the movement. This biography should serve as a helpful reckoner for those interested in the rise and fall of the socialist movement and post-independence political history.

K.K. Kailash is with the department of political science, University of Hyderabad.

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