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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 21 New Delhi May 11, 2019

Legacy of Chhotu Ram and the 2019 Parliamentary Elections in Haryana

Tuesday 14 May 2019

by Ranbir Singh

Deen Bandhu Sir Chaudhry Chhotu Ram was hailed as a Rehbareazam (the Great Leader) by the peasantry of colonial Punjab. He has been legitimately recognised by the specialists of Punjab politics and history as the tallest political leader of 20th century Punjab. He not only provided relief to the deeply indebted peasantry of the province by enacting the much-needed legislation for bringing them out of the clutches of the moneylenders, Sir Chhotu Ram had also conceived the idea of the Bhakra Canal for irrigating the arid land of the draught-prone and famine-ridden area of southern Punjab, now the Haryana State. It was during his lifetime that the Government of Punjab had initiated the process of construction of the Bhakra Canal. It is a different matter that the project got shelved because of the political developments that took place in India in general and Punjab in particular after the Muslim League demand for Pakistan had pushed the issue of the construction of this lifeline of Haryana on the back burner.

Chhotu Ram also helped the rural youth of the Haryana region in getting their due share in the recruitment to government jobs by taking advantage of the reservations for the Hindu agriculturist castes and through the recruitment of the youth of the area in the Army during the First and the Second World Wars. Chhotu Ram also took up cudgels with the British Raj for ensuring remunerative prices for foodgrains. But he was opposed to both Hindu and Muslim communalisms. Likewise, Chhotu Ram had also vehemently opposed the demand for Pakistan.

He died in 1945. Since then there have been many claimants of his legacy. Initially, it had been claimed by Chaudhry Tika Ram of Sonepat who succeeded him as a Minister in the Unionist Party Government in Punjab. But he was pushed into the background as a result of his defeat in the 1946 election to the Punjab Legislative Assembly. Thereafter, it had been claimed by his nephew, Chaudhry Shri Chand, who was elected as an MLA in the 1952 and 1957 elections to the Punjab Legislative Assembly, MLC to the Punjab Legislative Council in 1962 and MLA and Speaker of the Haryana Legislative Assembly in 1967.

Chhotu Ram’s legacy remained, more or less, unclaimed till 1980 when Devi Lal, who had been opposed to Chhotu Ram as a Congress leader till the latter’s death in 1945, began to claim it as a leader of the Lok Dal by championing the cause of the peasantry. But his son, O.P. Chautala, who became his political heir in 1989 even when Devi Lal was alive, began to claim Devi Lal’s legacy instead of that of Chhotu Ram. However, he did bring Chhotu Ram’s hooka and some other belongings from Pakistan and established a Museum at his birthplace, Sampla Garhi (Rohtak) before the 2005 Haryana Assembly elections.

In the meantime, Birender Singh, son of Chhotu Ram’s daughter, began to claim his legacy after becoming a Minister in the Bhajan Lal-led government which had been converted into the Congress Government after the defeat of Janata Party in the 1980 parliamentary elections. At that time, he raised the demand for the installation of a statue of Chhotu Ram at Nangal because the idea of the Canal had been conceived by his Nana. Birender Singh continued to claim the legacy of Chhotu Ram when he had joined the Congress (Tiwari) in 1995 and even after its merger in the Congress before the 1998 parliamentary elections. Since then, he has been strongly claiming himself as the only political heir of Chaudhary Chhotu Ram who had no son.

Birender Singh continues to press this claim even after he joined the BJP and his induction in the Narendra Modi-led NDA Government in 2014. Now his son, Brijender Singh, has resigned his lucrative and prestigious post in the IAS and decided to contest from Hissar parliamentary constituency as a candidate of the BJP. Let us see how far he is able to take advantage of the legacy of Chhotu Ram.

It may be added by way of a footnote that even Sardar Partap Singh Kairon, the Chief Minister of Punjab from 1956 to 1964, used to claim that he had been following the pro-farmer and pro-rural policies of Chhotu Ram. The same claim is being made these days by almost all the political leaders of Haryana belonging to the peasant castes. But, the million dollar question remains unanswered: Who will be perceived as the most genuine heir of Chhotu Ram’s great legacy by the voters of Haryana in the forthcoming 2019 parliamentary elections? Which party will be benefited by this factor?

Be that as it may, the issue of agricultural indebtedness which was the main focus of Chhotu Ram, as a Minister in the Unionist Party Government from 1924 to 1926 and from 1937 to 1945, has assumed an alarming proportion on account of the agrarian crisis that has gripped the peasantry of Haryana since the petering out of the gains of the Green Revolution due to the adverse terms of trade. It has been aggravated due to the frequent vagaries of weather on the one hand and the failure of successive governments to ensure remunerative prices to them on the other hand.

Prof Ranbir Singh, a former Dean, Social Sciences and Academic Affairs, Kurukshetra University, is currently a Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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