A political activist and socialist leader whose often-unconventional ideas confounded both his critics and admirers, Ram Manohar Lohia was born on 23 March 1910. When he died on 12 October 1967, he was only in his fifties — and in the thick of things both politically and intellectually.
Unfortunately, Lohia’s legacy is today pigeonholed into two or three categories, such as his views on caste-based reservations and a certain kind of socialism. In reality, he engaged with a very wide range of issues and was among the first Indians to coherently talk about his country’s place in the wider modern world, more than a decade before Independence.
His place of birth, Akbarpur village, is in Ambedkar Nagar district in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh. His father, Hira Lal, would take the young Lohia to rallies in support of India’s freedom struggle, and introduced him to Mahatma Gandhi.
After studying at the Banaras Hindu University and University of Calcutta, Lohia, in a somewhat uncommon decision for an educated Indian of that time, continued his education in Germany. He was first noticed by the elite of the Indian Nationalist movement when he wrote several letters to news outlets in Europe, criticising the fact that the Maharaja of Bikaner, who was known to be friendly to the British, represented India at the League.
After returning to India, he joined the Congress party. Around this time Lohia’s own socialist philosophy was evolving and he played a major role in forming the Congress Socialist Party.
As the first secretary of the foreign affairs department of the All India Congress Committee, he was among the pioneering political thinkers to apply his mind to what Independent India’s foreign policy should be.
With Europe slowly heading towards another World War in the mid-1930s, Lohia reflected on the political and economic questions of the day. “The present [economic] recovery,” he astutely observed in an article, “to no small extent, owes its origin to the ‘war boom’. The effect on economic development of the war factor can be gauged from the tremendous increase in war expenditure of the capitalist countries of the world.” Foreshadowing the economic rationale for many of 20th century’s later wars, he added, “The depression [in the West] has proved a boon to armament industries, and it was in the nature of things.”
He, however, believed that Germany and Italy, besides being imperialist, were also undemocratic.
Lohia took an active part in the ‘Quit India’ movement, which was launched by the Congress in 1942, and founded the Azad Hind Radio. Along with Jayprakash Narayan and others, he went to Nepal in support of freedom and democracy there. Lohia was later arrested in India and sent to Lahore jail.
On the eve of India’s independence, Lohia focused his attention on the Portuguese conclave of Goa, and campaigned to make it free from foreign rule. He went to Goa a few times to promote his ideas, despite being expelled from there by the administration.
Overthrowing despotic rule in Nepal was another cause close to his heart. He protested in front of the Nepal Embassy in New Delhi. Supporting him in this endeavour were people like Rajindar Sachar, who would go on to become the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court.
Lohia reinterpreted Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha and applied it to societies which had already achieved their primary objective of gaining freedom from colonial occupation. Accordingly, he argued, if constitutional methods failed to deliver, people had the right to use civil disobedience to resist unjust laws and injustices. He also helped in founding the Asian Socialist Conference in Burma, but the venture was short-lived as democracy did not take off in many member countries.
Lohia supported affirmative action for the backward castes; believed that Hindi, and not English, should be the unifying language for the country; and took a markedly assertive stance against China after the 1962 war. There has been a tendency to caricature him on the basis of such views that he held. But for Lohia each of these assertions was backed by complex arguments and they were not a case of political grandstanding.
On language, for instance, he argued, “The use of English is a hindrance to original thinking, progenitor of inferiority feelings and a gap between the educated and uneducated public.”
He was not in favour of either capitalism or communism. In terms of increasing output through mass production, both isms were similar, he held. In his last years, he was determined to defeat the Congress politically as he felt there was excessive concentration of power in one party, and that was detrimental to the country’s interests.
In recent years, interest in the life and work of Lohia has grown. Hopefully, fresh research will shed new light on this fascinating and courageous man who never feared going against the tide.
Also on this day:
1935 — Shivraj Patil, union home minister and Lok Sabha Speaker, was born
2012 — Sukhdev Singh Kang, Governor of Kerala, passed away