The June 9, 1964 issue of Student Voice (published in Atlanta, GA), the newspaper of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee), carried the following news report:
JACKSON, MISS.—A member of India’s Parliament was twice refused service at a Morrison’s cafeteria here, and was escorted away by police, the second time in a patrol wagon. On both occasions May 27-28, Dr Rammanohar Lohia was accompanied by White persons and was dressed in native garb. Lohia was here visiting integrated Tougaloo College.
It was just like Rammanohar Lohia, who thought himself a world citizen, ready to fight injustice in Mississippi. He had participated in the Nepalese struggle against the Ranas and launched a Goan civil disobedience movement against Portuguese rule. His role in the Indian freedom movement was well known—six years in British jails, including spells of torture, in some six stints in prison. After independence another dozen—by the time of his first visit to the US in 1951 he had already been to jail twice in free India. To Lohia this was normal—he was always engaged in some cause, usually several. A strong advocate of civil disobedience and non-violence, he wrote that
A way must be found to combat injustice without weapons. That way has already been found. In the act of civil disobedience lies the irresistible impulse of man without weapons to justice and equality. Civil disobedience is armed reason.
During his 1951 trip to the US, Lohia spoke to audiences all across the south, including Montgo-mery (where one report says Rosa Parks was also in the audience) about Gandhi’s method of non-violent non-cooperation.
A brilliant intellectual, a Ph.D from Berlin (1932), fluent in English, German, French, Hindi and Bengali, he routinely fought battles on behalf of India’s poorest, speaking out about injustice and poverty sharply and without let-up. When he arrived in Parliament in 1963, the country had had a one-party government through three general elections. Lohia shook things up. He had written a pamphlet, 25000 Rupees a Day, the amount spent on Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an obscene sum in a country where the vast majority lived on three annas (less than one-quarter of a rupee) a day. Nehru demurred, saying that India’s Planning Commision statistics showed that the daily average income was more like 15 annas (a little under a rupee) per day. Lohia demanded that this was an important issue, one that cried out for a special debate. The controversy, still remembered in India as the “Teen Anna Pandrah Anna (3 annas -15 annas)” controversy, saw something akin to the tense excitement of “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”. Member after member gave up his time to Lohia as he built his case, demolishing the Planning Commission’s statistics as fanciful. Not that the Commission was attempting to mislead, but the reality was that a small number of rich people were pulling up the average to present a wholly unrealistic picture. At that time, Lohia’s figure was true for over 70 per cent of the population.
Unlike the Marxist theories which became fashionable in the Third World in the fifties and sixties, Lohia recognised that caste, more than class, was the huge stumbling block to India’s progress. Then as today, caste was politically incorrect to mention in public, but most people practised it in all aspects of life — birth, marriage, association and death. It was Lohia’s thesis that India had suffered reverses throughout her history because people had viewed themselves as members of a caste rather than citizens of a country. Caste, as Lohia put it, was congealed class. Class was mobile caste. As such, the country was deprived of fresh ideas, because of the narrowness and stultification of thought at the top, which was comprised mainly of the upper castes, Brahmins and Baniyas, and tight compartmentalisation even there, the former dominant in the intellectual arena and the latter in the business. A proponent of affirmative action, he compared it to turning the earth to foster a better crop, urging the upper castes, as he put it, “to voluntarily serve as the soil for lower castes to flourish and grow”, so that the country would profit from a broader spectrum of talent and ideas.
In Lohia’s words,
Caste restricts opportunity. Restricted opportunity constricts ability. Constricted ability further restricts opportunity. Where caste prevails, opportunity and ability are restricted to ever-narrowing circles of the people.
In his own party, the Samyukta (United) Socialist Party, Lohia promoted lower caste candidates both by giving electoral tickets and high party positions.
Though he talked about caste incessantly, he was not a casteist—his aim was to make sure people voted for the Socialist Party candidate, no matter what his or her caste. His point was that in order to make the country strong, everyone needed to have a stake in it. To eliminate caste, his aphoristic prescription was, “Roti and Beti”, that is, people would have to break caste barriers to eat together (roti) and be willing to give their girls in marriage to boys from other castes (beti).
Lohia was early to recognise that Marxism and capitalism were similar in that both were propo-nents of the Big Machine. It was his belief that Big Industry was no solution for the Third World (he even warned Americans, back in 1951, about their lives being taken over by big corporations). He called Marxism the “last weapon of Europe against Asia”. Propounding the “Principle of Equal Irrele-vance”, he rejected both Marxism and capitalism, which were often presented as the only alteratives for Third World nations. Nehru too had a similar view, at least insofar as he observed to Andre Malraux that his challenge was to “build a just society by just means”. Lohia had a strong preference for appropriate technology, which would reduce drudgery but not put the common man at the mercy of far away forces. As early as 1951, he foresaw a time of the ‘monotonic mind’, with nothing much to do because the problems of living had been all addressed by technology.
Aside from the procedural revolution of non-violent civil disobedience, bridging the rich-poor divide, the elimination of caste and the revolution against incursions of the big-machine, other revolutions in Lohia’s list included tackling the man-woman inequality, banishing inequality based on colour, and that of preserving individual privacy against encroachment of the collective.
George Will once wrote that though every city in the US had some monument to Jefferson, there was no comparable memorial for Hamilton. He added, “If you want to see the Hamilton Memorial, just look around you. You live in it.” We can similarly say that though not attributed to him, many of Lohia’s revolutions have advanced in India, some with greater degrees of success than others. In some instances the revolutions have led to perverse results which he would have found distasteful. But Lohia wasn’t one to shy away from either controversy or struggle. Unlike the Democrats in the current US Congress who adopt the Rodney King motto of “Can’t we all just get along”, Lohia believed that a party grew by taking up causes. He was a strong believer in popular action. In India’s parliamentary system, where elections could be called even before the term was over, he once said that “live communities don’t wait for five years (the term of the parliament)”, meaning that a government which misruled should be thrown out by the people. He carried out this idea by moving the first no-confidence motion against the Nehru Government, which had by then been in office for 16 years!
Lohia is often called a maverick socialist, a clichéd but nevertheless apt description. Bu
t he gave that impression not to be controversial, but because he was always evolving his thoughts, and like his mentor, Gandhi, did not hesitate to speak the truth as he saw it. He often surprised both supporters and opponents. He astounded everyone by calling for India to produce the bomb, after the Chinese aggression of 1962. He was anti-English, saying that the British ruled India with bullet and language (bandook ki goli aur angrezi ki boli). Full of unforgettable phrases which would characterise a point of view, he captured who was a member of India’s ruling class with near-mathematical precision that I have not seen bettered in three decades—“high-caste, wealth, and knowledge of English are the three requisites, with anyone possessing two of these belonging to the ruling class”. The definition still holds.
Rammanohar Lohia was regarded by friend and foe alike as an honest, brilliant, and profound man. He inspired deep loyalty and enormous respect, and to his followers, the words “Doctor Sahib” would conjure up only one image. He lived and died in simplicity, owning nothing. His death was a huge loss to India, for she had lost one of her finest political minds. He was only 57.
Dr Lohia would have been celebrating his 100th year on March 23, 2009.
Living on the West Coast of the US, Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer; his articles can be found on http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles. His father, K.G. Ramakrishnan, was a friend and associate of Dr Rammanohar Lohia, and also wrote extensively in Mainstream. Niranjan can be reached at [email protected] He is working on a website, www.drlohia.com, devoted to the writings and ideas of Rammanohar Lohia, to be released on Lohia’s birth centenary.