April 17, 2024

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Jagjivan Ram

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Babu Jagjivan Ram (5 April 1908 – 6 July 1986), known popularly as Babuji, was a freedom fighter and a social reformer hailing from the scheduled castes of Bihar in India. He was from the Chamar caste and was a leader for his community.  He was instrumental in foundation of the ‘All-India Depressed Classes League’, an organization dedicated to attaining equality for untouchables, in 1935 and was elected to Bihar Legislative Assembly in 1937, that is when he organized, rural labour movement.

In 1946, he became the youngest minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s provisional government, the First Union Cabinet of India as a Labour minister, and also a member of Constituent Assembly of India, where he ensured that social justice was enshrined in the Constitution. He went on serve as a minister in theIndian parliament with various portfolios for more than forty years as a member of Indian National Congress (INC), most importantly he was the Defence Minister of India during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, which resulted in formation of Bangladesh. His contribution to the Green Revolution in India and modernising Indian agriculture, during his two tenures as Union Agriculture Minister are still remembered, especial during 1974 drought when he was asked to hold the additional portfolio to tide over the food crisis. Though he supported Indira Gandhi during the Emergency in India (1975–1977), he left Congress in 1977 and joined Janata Party alliance in 1977, along with his Congress for Democracy, he later served as the Deputy Prime Minister of India(1977–1979), then in 1980, he formed Congress (J). He is also famous for “forgetting to pay his taxes” during his years in power.

Jagjivan Ram was born at Chandwa near Arrah in Bihar, to a family of five siblings, elder brother Sant Lal, and three sisters. His father Sobhi Ram was withBritish Indian Army, posted at Peshawar, but later resigned due to some differences and bought some farming land in his native village Chandwa, and settled there. He also became a Mahant of Shiv Narayani sect, skilled in calligraphy he illustrated many book of the sect and distributed locally.

Young Jagjivan started going a local school in January 1914, but shortly afterward his father died prematurely, leaving him and his mother Vasanti Devi to economic hardships. He joined Aggrawal Middle School in Arrah in 1920, where the medium of instruction was English for the first time, and joined Arrah Town School in 1922, it was here that is faced caste discrimination for the first time, yet remained unfazed. An often cited incident occurred in the school, there was this tradition of having two water pots in the school, one for Hindus and another for Muslims, so when Jagjivan drank water from the Hindu pot, while being from an untouchable class, the matter was reported to the Principal, who placed a third pot for “untouchables” in the school, but this pot was broken by him twice, eventually the Principal decided against placing the third pot. A turning point in his life came in 1925, when Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya visited his school, and impressed by his welcome address, invited him to join Banaras Hindu University.

Jagjivan Ram passed his matriculation in the first division and joined the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in 1927, where he was awarded the Birla scholarship, and passed his Inter Science Examination; while at BHU he organised the scheduled castes to protest against social discrimination. As a Dalit student, he would not be served meals in his hostel, denied haircut by local barbers, a Dalit barber would arrive from Ghazipur from occasionally to trim his hair, eventually he left BHU and pursued graduation from Calcutta University. In 2007, the BHU set up a Babu Jagjivan Ram Chair in its faculty of social sciences to study caste discrimination and economic backwardness.

He received a B.Sc. degree from the University of Calcutta in 1931, here again he organized conferences to draw the attention towards issues of discrimination, and also participated in the anti-untouchability movement started by Mahatma Gandhi.

Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose took notice of him at Kolkata, when in 1928 he organized a Mazdoor Rally at Wellington Square, in which approximately 50,000 people participated. When the devastating Bihar earthquake of 1934 occurred he got actively involved in the relief work and his efforts were appreciated his work. When popular rule was introduced under the 1935 Act and the scheduled castes were given representation in the legislatures, both the nationalists and the British loyalists sought him because of his first-hand knowledge of the social and economic situation in Bihar, Jagjivan Ram was nominated to the Bihar Council. He chose to go with the nationalists and joined Congress, which wanted him not only because he was valued as an able spokesperson for the depressed classes, but also that he could counter Ambedkar; he was elected to the Bihar assembly in 1937. However, he resigned his membership on the issue of irrigation cess.

In 1935, he contributed to the establishment of the ‘All-India Depressed Classes League’, an organization dedicated to attaining equality for untouchables. He was also drawn into the Indian National Congress, in the same year he proposed a resolution in the 1935 session of the Hindu Mahasabha demanding that temples and drinking water wells be opened up to Dalits. and in the early 1940s was imprisoned twice for his active participation in the Satyagraha and the Quit India Movements. He was among the principal leaders who publicly denounced India’s participation in the World War II between the European nations and for which he was imprisoned in 1940.

In 1946 he became the youngest minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s provisional government and also the subsequent First Indian Cabinet, as a Labour Minister, where he is credited for laying the foundation for several labour welfare policies in India. He was a part of the prestigious high profile Indian delegation that attended to attend the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s International Labour Conference on 16 August 1947 in Geneva along with the great Gandhian Bihar Bibhuti Dr. Anugrah Narayan Sinha his chief political mentor and also the then head of the delegation, and few days later he was elected President of the ILO. He served as Labour minister until 1952, later he several Ministerial posts in Nehru’s Cabinet,Communications (1952–56), for Transport and railways (1956–62), and for Transport and communications (1962–63).

In Indira Gandhi’s government he worked as minister for Labour, employment, and rehabilitation (1966–67), and Union minister for Food and agriculture (1967–70), where he is best remembered for having successfully led the Green Revolution during his tenure. When the Congress Party split in 1969, Jagjivan Ram joined the camp led by Indira Gandhi, and became the president of that faction of Congress. He worked as the Minister of Defence (1970–74) making him the virtual No. 2 in the cabinet, minister for Agriculture and irrigation (1974–77). It was during his tenure as the minister of Defence that the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 was fought, and Bangladesh achieved independence. While loyal to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for most of the Indian Emergency, in 1977 he along with five other politicians resigned from the Cabinet and formed the Congress for Democracy party, within the Janata coalition.

A few days before the elections, on a Sunday, Jagjivan Ram addressed an Opposition rally at the famous Ram Lila Grounds in Delhi. The national broadcaster Doordarshan allegedly attempted to stop crowds from participating in the demonstration by telecasting the blockbuster movie Bobby. The rally still drew large crowds, and a newspaper headline the next day ran “Babu beats Bobby” . He was the Deputy Prime Minister of India when Morarji Desai was the Prime Minister, from 1977 to 1979, though initially reluctant to join the cabinet, and was not present at the oath-taking ceremony on 27 March 1977; he eventually did so at the behest of Jai Prakash Narayan, who insisted that his presence for necessary, “not just as an individual but as a political and social force” and took oath later on. However, he was once again given the defence portfolio. Disillusioned with the Janata party he formed his own party, the Congress (J). He remained a member of Parliament till his death in 1986, after over forty years as a parliamentarian. He was elected from Sasaram parliament constituency in Bihar. His uninterrupted representation in the Parliament from 1936 to 1986 was a world record, until Tony Benn overtook him by serving 51 years (1950–2001) in the British parliament. .

In August 1933 his first wife died after a brief illness, thereafter in June 1935 he married Indrani Devi, a daughter of Dr. Birbal, a well-known social worker of Kanpur, and the couple had two children, Suresh Kumar and Meira Kumar.

The place he was cremated has been turned into the memorial Samatha Sthal, and his birth anniversary is observed as Samatha Diwas., (Equality Day) in India, his centenary celebrations were held all over the nation in 2008, especially at his statues at the Parliament and at Nizam College; demands for awarding him posthumous Bharat Ratna have being raised from time to time Hyderabad.Andhra University which had conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1973, and in 2009 on the occasion of his 102nd birth anniversary, his statue was unveiled on the university premises .

His daughter, Meira Kumar, is a prominent INC leader, who has won his former seat Sasaram, both 2004 and 2009 and was later the Minister for Social Justice in the Manmohan Singh government (2004 – ’09), thereafter she became the Speaker of Lok Sabha in 2009. To propagate his ideologies, the ‘Babu Jagjivan Ram National Foundation’, has been set up by Ministry of Social Justice, Govt. of India in Delhi.

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