Babu Jagjivan Ram, a Union Minister, freedom fighter and Dalit leader, was born on 5 April 1908 in Chandwa village, present-day Bhojpur district of Bihar to a Dalit family. His father, Shobhi Ram, was in the British army but later resigned, bought farmland in Chandwa, and settled there.
Jagjivan Ram was sent to the village school but soon after, his father died. His mother, Vasanti Devi, however, made sure that his education continued.
In 1922 when he joined Arrah Town School, he realised that discrimination against Dalits was still rife. He protested against the school’s shocking decision to have separate pitchers of water for so-called ‘untouchable’ students.
Later, a meeting with the renowned nationalist leader Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, who had come to visit the school, inspired him.
He went on to study at the prestigious Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and later secured a B.Sc. degree from the Calcutta University. Caste discrimination was unfortunately prevalent in those days in BHU as well. In 2007, when Jagjivan Ram’s daughter Meira Kumar, the then Union Minister for social justice and empowerment, was invited to speak about her father’s days at the BHU — during the inauguration of the Babu Jagjivan Ram Chair — she said that he was even denied haircuts by local barbers.
Jagjivan Ram’s successful organisation of a workers’ rally in Calcutta brought him to the attention of leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose. In 1934 Jagjivan Ram was involved with relief work in the aftermath of the Bihar earthquake. In 1935 he was nominated to the Bihar Council. He decided to join the Congress.
His first wife died in 1933. Two years later, he married Indrani Devi, the daughter of a Kanpur-based social worker.
Jagjivan Ram was jailed during the Quit India Movement in the 1940s. A year before Independence he became a minister in the provisional union cabinet. Subsequently he was labour minister in independent India’s first union cabinet under Jawaharlal Nehru.
He later held other cabinet posts such as communications and transport & railways in the Nehru regime.
After Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, he held several important posts in successive cabinets led by her, including minister for labour, employment, and rehabilitation; minister for food and agriculture; and minister of defence. It was during his tenure as agricultural minister that the Green Revolution took place. India defeated Pakistan in the 1971 war when he was the defence minister.
The renowned agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, who worked closely with Jagjivan Ram, wrote in The Hindu in February 2008: “Babuji [Jagjivan Ram] was deeply concerned with issues of social inclusion in access to new technologies….[He] felt that small and marginal farmers might not be able to purchase the new seeds and the fertilisers needed for enabling them to realise the full genetic potential for yield of the new strains. Therefore, he initiated the Small and Marginal Farmers and Landless Labour Programmes in order to provide the needed credit and inputs to those who would have otherwise been bypassed by new technologies.”
In 1977 shortly after Indira Gandhi announced elections, signalling an end to the emergency, Jagjivan Ram, together with a few other politicians, became part of the Janata coalition by forming the Congress for Democracy.
As the historian Ramachandra Guha writes in India After Gandhi: “[Jagjivan] Ram was a lifelong Congressman, a prominent minister in Nehru’s and Indira Gandhi’s Cabinets and — most crucially — the acknowledged leader of the Scheduled Castes. . . . It was [Jagjivan] Ram who had moved the resolution in the Lok Sabha endorsing the emergency. His resignation came as a shock to the Congress, and as a harbinger of things to come. For Babuji was renowned for his political acumen; that he chose to leave the Congress was widely taken as a sign that this ship was, if not yet sinking, then leaking very badly indeed.”
Between March 1977 and August 1979, Jagjivan Ram was the Deputy Prime Minister in India’s first non-Congress government. But he didn’t get the country’s top job. “There is little doubt that Babuji provided the fatal blow to the Emergency regime. Not surprisingly, he was the frontrunner to the prime minister’s post,” Ajay Bose wrote in the Outlook magazine in May 2010. “But he was thwarted at the last moment by a powerful lobby led by peasant patriarch Charan Singh. . . .”
By the time Jagjivan Ram died (on 6 July 1986), the political fortunes of another powerful Dalit leader — Kanshi Ram — were on the rise. But Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party sought to, at least in its initial years, distance itself from the legacy of the tallest Dalit leader of the Congress.
As a dedicated Congress member for most of his life and by virtue of the important ministerial posts he held, Babu Jagjivan Ram occupies a unique position in the arc of Dalit political mobilisation that spreads from Ambedkar to Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. But to look at Jagjivan Ram only through a caste lens would be a disservice to his memory and achievements.
Also on this day:
1920 — Rafiq Zakaria, Indian politician and Islamic scholar, was born
1922 — Pandita Ramabai, Indian social reformer and educationist, passed away
1976 — Rustomji Jamshedji, Indian Test cricketer, passed away
- Jagjivan Ram website
- India after Gandhi by Ramachanda Guha