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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 45, New Delhi, October 23, 2021

J P and his many experiments with democracy | Murari Sharan Verma

Saturday 23 October 2021


by Murari Sharan Verma *

Jaiprakash Narayan was one of the leading lights of India’s freedom movement and an iconic figure in post-independence India. He inspired millions but his ideas also evoked cynicism in several quarters. Ironically, J P has been more pilloried than eulogized and more respected than accepted. But he has an abiding place in the history of Indian political thought. The critics often miss the logical connection in his evolving thoughts and worldviews. Much of the criticism emanates from the failure to make a distinction between young J.P. and elderly J.P. who constantly made experiments in democracy. That explains how his views kept evolving from Marxism to democratic socialism to Sarvodaya. There is an integrating thread running across the whole spectrum of his ideas.

In his long political journey, a great turn came when he met Gandhi after his return from the United States after a 7-year long stay and study. In his first meeting with Gandhi, he was taken aback to know that his wife, Prabhavati, had taken a vow to lead a life of celibacy. J P too decided to follow suit and decided to live like a married Brahmachari.
Freedom for the nation was the avowed goal of Indian leaders when JP appeared on the national scene. J P too threw himself into the freedom movement. In the beginning, he didn’t share Gandhi’s commitment to Ahimsa in spite of his love and respect for him. At that time, JP was contemplating armed struggle against the Britishers if there was no other alternative. Subhas Chandra Bose had his approval for his plan. But nothing could persuade him to repose faith in the Axis powers. And that pushed him towards Gandhi whose influence on him was so formidable that he allowed himself to become his ‘foot soldier.’ At one state J P said, “Marxian philosophy is incomplete (and) it will ever remain so.”

In 1942, together with Lohia, JP decided to adopt a path different from the Gandhian principle. Like Lenin, he planned to launch an armed revolution for which Gandhi was not ready. However, they persuaded Gandhi to accept their plan of disrupting all lines of transport and communication to make the colonial Government realise that the Indian people had risen en masse and that it would no longer be possible for alien rulers to rule over them. J.P. and other leaders were arrested and subjected to torture which prompted J P and Lohia to write a long letter to H.J. Laski, a Labour leader and a great advocate of human rights, to raise his voice against the government. Laski took up their case with the British Government and got them some relief.

Like Gandh, J P too believed that the revolution did not end with the end of the freedom movement. Gandhi had unequivocally suggested that the Congress Party be dissolved and transformed into Lok Sevak Sangh. J P realized that a social revolution was needed to translate Gandhian teachings into reality.

When his experiment of forming a political party met with utter failure in 1952 elections, he took no time in plunging into the Bhoodan Movement launched by Vinoba Bhave. It evoked enthusiastic response across the country. It marked a second turning point in the life of J.P.

Having made Jeevan Dan, JP began the Sarvodaya Movement abjuring the use of violence. He said in 1954 that his objection to violence was not based on moral principles but on practical considerations. J P said that he did not consider violence immoral for a revolution but was convinced that the basic objectives of a revolution could not be achieved by a violent revolution and that through violence, a violence-free society was not possible. His journey from Bhoodan to Sarvodaya was not a negation of what Vinoba Bhave upheld; it only complemented it. JP considered the Bhoodan movement as a revolution of thought and a revolution of hope that presented the Gandhian principles as a solution to India’s myriad of problems. It also marked J P’s departure from the Marxian class struggle.

What Lenin aimed at was predominantly a political struggle to create a new society. J.P.’s Sarvodaya Movement was primarily aimed at a social revolution by the people themselves. The greatness of a revolution can’t be judged solely in terms of its immediate success; it can better be judged by what waves of thought it created in the minds of the people begetting a process of change.

J.P. also tried his hand in resolving many contentious issues confronting India. He tried his best to seek a resolution of the Kashmir issue, talked to the Naga leaders for a peaceful settlement of their grievances, championed the cause of Tibet and the erstwhile East Pakistan and raised his voice on several other issues. Disgusted with the outcome of competitive party politics, JP advocated party-less democracy to build broader political consensus on issues of major political concern.

J.P.’s activism on three important challenges must be seen in positive light. First, he took up the case of growing dacoit menace in the Chambal Valley and succeeded in persuading the bandits not to indulge in inhuman activities again. Second, with the severest of drought having affected North India including Bihar, he visited various countries and mobilised massive assistance from abroad. Third, it was J.P. who de-Naxalized Musahari block of Muzaffarpur district of Bihar by his continued presence in the area supplemented by his efforts to break the backbone of violence supposed to be the only way to bring justice to the poor and downtrodden. Such was the charisma of J.P.’s personality.

The most glorious part of J.P.’s personality appears towards the fag end of his life. When India Gandhi imposed Emergency and suspended fundamental rights and freedoms, J.P. appeared in a new avatar with his much- debated concept of Total Revolution. It was a synthesis of socialist revolutionary dynamism and the aggressive rural realism of the Sarvodaya phase which was based on his realisation that Bhoodan and Gram Daan could not bring about any revolutionary change having failed to make Grams into self-governing units.

J.P. said, “ the objective of my life has been Total Revolution. I have always been dreaming of it. Whatever revolutions have so far taken place in history, in my view, most of them have been through violence. Now I wish that there be Total Revolution through non-violence based on Gandhian principles. A new society will come into existence as a result of the Total Revolution, which will be different in every respect from the present-day society.”

A great strategist, J.P., by combining the Gandhian method and the Leninist fervour, succeeded in mobilising the masses on an unprecedented scale involving even the ordinary people of the country. It was his methodology which worked well ending in a tremendous success.

Total Revolution has been called by some as ‘total confusion’ but, in fact, it was a success in the immediate pursuit of dislodging Indira Gandhi from power and restoring democracy in the country, although this political experiment could not come to the logical conclusion and ended without achieving the much-proclaimed objective.

J.P. taught the people that democracy is their right and any attempt to subvert it will not be tolerated by people. Like John Locke, he conceded the people the right to rebel against a duly constituted government if it went against the will of the people and trampled upon the constitutional system of the country. In this sense JP may be called the John Locke of India. He went as far to call upon the army to disobey the arbitrary and undemocratic orders of the government. It is difficult to accept it in all circumstances although a revolution may not be unjustified, in the words of English philosopher T.H. Green, if the government does not act in the general interest of the people.

JP not only taught us how to dream but also gave us a weapon to fight an undemocratic and authoritarian government.

J.P. showed a commendable theoretical understanding when he said, “what is legal may not necessarily be democratic and what is democratic may not always be legal.” It is by virtue of this statement that J.P. became the greatest champion of democracy in post-independence India.

JP’s greatness lies in his blending of the views of Gandhi, Locke, Rousseau, Green and Lenin in a way which suits the Indian conditions. A great intellectual, J.P. was a great patriot as well which is apparent from these lines written by J.P. himself: “May God give me that much of wisdom and strength so that whatever time I have I may be able to spend in the service of the people and the nation. This is the greatest secret of service to God. Let God keep my mind as well as my heart away from all that is impure.”

J.P. remains an enigma to many because of his changing views at different stages of his political journey. But it is not difficult to find the running thread which unites his ideas. Abhorrence of violence and primacy of Lok Satta over Raj Satta constitute the integrating thread in his views and ideas.

* (The author is former professor of political science, L N Mithila University, Darbhanga.)

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