“No national leader was identified so closely with the interests of the peasantry as Mr. Charan Singh.”
~ Editorial Comment in The Indian Express, quoted in Profiles of Indian Prime Ministers by Manisha
Chaudhary Charan Singh, one of the biggest icons of ‘rural upliftment’ and agricultural reforms in the 1980s, was the fifth Prime Minister of India, succeeding Morarji Desai in July 1979. His death on 29 May 1987 came as a big loss to the country, his political party, Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD), and the farming communities who gained immense support from him. In addition, Charan Singh is remembered as a leader with strong work ethics, and as a great author who wrote a number of books about rural India.
Charan Singh was born in a farming household of the Jat community on 23 December 1902. He hailed from the Noorpur village in the Meerut District, in western Uttar Pradesh. His ancestors are believed to have fought against the British during the Rebellion of 1857. Charan Singh was good in academics. Along with a Masters degree in History, he studied Law. He then enrolled into the Ghaziabad court as an advocate. However, soon thereafter he realised his calling in the freedom struggle of India, and therefore joined the Indian National Congress, in view to make a difference.
His Political Career before Independence
Young Charan Singh was highly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and Swami Dayanand Saraswati. These influences prompted him to join the freedom struggle. Being an ardent Gandhian, Singh participated in several of the non-violence movements with Gandhi and his supporters. This also resulted in a number of prison sentences, including for being part of the Dandi Salt March in 1930, and in 1940 for the Satyagraha Movement.
When British administration started including Indians, Charan Singh got elected from the Chhaprauli constituency to the Legislative Assembly of Uttar Pradesh. Thereafter, Charan Singh contested many of his elections from the same constituency. One of his most significant achievements during this time was the adoption of the Agricultural Produce Market Bill, which he introduced in 1938.
His Political Career after Independence
After India achieved its independence in 1947, Charan Singh along with many other members of the Indian National Congress (INC) joined mainstream politics. Although, he came to the forefront in the 1950s, when he opposed the land use policies of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. This move brought him closer to the farmers of India, especially in Uttar Pradesh. His opposition to other economic policies of Nehru, although affected his relationship with INC members. Charan Singh eventually left the party, and formed a new political party – Bharatiya Kranti Dal in 1967. He soon became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in the same year. His good work got him elected again, in 1970.
During the time of Emergency, declared by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1975), Charan Singh was sent into prison for opposing her. Two years later, when general elections were held again, Indira Gandhi lost support and for the first time a Non-Congress government was formed at the centre. The major composition of this government was a coalition between the Janata Party and Bharatiya Lok Dal, which was a combination of seven parties including the Swatantra Party and Bharatiya Kranti Dal. Despite Charan Singh’s prime ministerial ambitions, Morarji Desai of the Janata Party was chosen to become the Prime Minister. Charan Singh had to be content with the deputy role, and the Home Affairs ministry initially (March 1977 to July 1978), and later the Finance ministry (January 1979 to July 1979). In 1979, due to differences with Desai, Singh broke away from the Janata Party coalition government. He then formed a coalition with Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party, and ascended the post of the Prime Minister from 28 July.
Charan Singh’s prime minister-ship was short-lived and lasted for only about 170 days (till 14 January 1980). This was due to backtracking by Indira Gandhi. It is believed that Charan Singh was not ready to withdraw the Emergency related court cases, which were against Indira Gandhi and her supporters. Eventually, Singh resigned from the prime ministerial post and elections were held again, which brought Gandhi back to power. Charan Singh became the opposition. At present, his son Ajit Singh, leads his party, which is now known as Rashtriya Lok Dal.
According to historians, Charan Singh was healthy till the age of 83. Manisha in her book, Profiles of Indian Prime Ministers, remarks, “[Charan Singh] wore his 83 years with fairly good health on simple food and dry fruits, one of his weaknesses.” He although suffered from a cerebral stroke a year later. Medical treatments followed, including trips to the US to see specialists in 1986. But, it all ended in 1987, when he died on 29 May. He was 85 years old.
His death was mourned by the entire nation. The central government announced a four-day mourning for the national leader. A state funeral was organised and the cremation site is remembered as Kisan Ghat, memorializing the work he did for the farming communities of India. In his memory, the Meerut University changed its name to Chaudhary Charan Singh University.
Also on this day:
1972 – Prithviraj Kapoor, Indian actor and patriarch of the famous Kapoor family in Bollywood, died
Profiles of Indian Prime Ministers by Manisha
Rashtriya Lok Dal Website