If Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi won freedom for India, it was Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP, who made it shine through his acts of bravery and sacrifice.
When Jawaharlal Nehru talked about India’s Independence, he had some premonitions: “We shall never allow that torch of freedom to be blown out, however high the wind or stormy the tempest.”
Little did he realise that about a quarter century later, his own daughter, Indira Gandhi, will blow out that ‘torch of freedom’!
This ‘extinction’ of freedom happened at midnight on 26 June 1975, when a nationwide Emergency was imposed in the country. This brought about a direct confrontation between Indira Gandhi and JP for who freedom was uncompromisable: “Freedom became one of the beacon lights of my life and it has remained so ever since… Above all, it meant freedom of the human personality, freedom of the mind, freedom of the spirit. This freedom has become a passion of my life and I shall not see it compromised for food, for security, for prosperity, for the glory of the state or for anything else,” JP wrote in his book From Socialism to Sarvodaya (1956).
He took up the fight in right earnest and within 21 months, democracy and freedom returned to India. JP was the architect of this ‘second freedom’. By defeating Emergency, he became India’s post-Independence liberator. From being an apostle of Gandhi to stepping into his shoes, JP truly became his moral heir.
A jail in Diwali to fighting for freedom
JP’s quality of a ‘fiery freedom fighter’ became evident when he was confined in the Hazaribagh Jail in Jharkhand during the launch of the Quit India movement in August 1942. In jail, JP felt frustrated at not being able to actively participate in this historic movement. So, on Diwali night in November 1942, he along with five others, escaped the high-security jail by scaling a 17-foot-high wall while the guards remained distracted by the festivities. The British government announced a handsome reward for JP’s capture. British troops and police launched a massive nationwide search, and the news reached every nook and corner. This electrified the nation and propelled the movement further, which was otherwise languishing. It was this momentum that eventually led to India’s Independence.
A.P. Sinha, a close friend of JP and jailmate at the Hazaribagh prison, put facts together succinctly when he said: “JP, you have got the passion that can make people’s spirits soar up. You can inspire them to self-sacrifice, to accept sufferings. You are a great national leader.” Braving all odds, JP reached Delhi undetected where he was housed and provided with facilities to launch and run an underground movement.
With other Congress leaders still in prison, JP was now India’s foremost public figure, acknowledged as a fiery leader of the Independence movement by the British themselves. Taking advantage of his emergence as a rebellious personality, the government indulged in sinister propaganda to depict the freedom movement as an underground, seditious activity with all the trappings of terrorism, political dacoity, sabotage, and unscrupulous opportunism in complete disregard for the safety and welfare of the general public.
This infuriated Gandhi, and he struck back against the British’s filthy charges: “Jayaprakash Narayan differs from me on several fundamentals. But my differences, great as they are, do not blind me to his indomitable courage and his sacrifice of all that a man holds dear for the love of his country. I have read his manifesto. Though I do not subscribe to some of his views expressed therein, it breathes nothing but burning patriotism and his impatience of foreign domination. It is a virtue which any country could be proud.” [Allan & Wendy Scarfe, “JP, His Biography”, (Hyderabad, Orient Longman-1975)]
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A halted ‘total revolution’
JP became a “sentinel and custodian of the Indian conscience” after Independence. In the same mould as Gandhi, JP never sought power. Instead, he wholeheartedly adopted the Gandhian creed of Sarvodaya, which meant ‘Universal Uplift’ or ‘Progress of All’ through non-violent means. Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, JP’s chronicler, explains this transformation stating that JP was an iconoclast with compassion and heir to an ancient and formidable legacy. “Bihar’s Magadha heartland, where JP was born, ‘not only produced relentless fighters and exterminators of kings’ but also hearkened at the same time to the devout teachings of Vardhamana Mahavira and Gautama Buddha,” he wrote in Encyclopedia of Indian War of Independence, Vol. 11.
JP, who had spurned the high offices of Union Cabinet minister, deputy prime minister, and prime minister and returned to active politics in 1974 to lead the student movement against corruption, unemployment, and high inflation. He called for a ‘total revolution’, declaring: “After 27 years of freedom, people of this country are wracked by hunger, rising prices, corruption…oppressed by every kind of injustice… it is a Total Revolution we want, nothing less!”
JP’s ‘Total Revolution’ is a combination of seven goals, viz., political, social, economic, cultural, ideological or intellectual, educational, and spiritual. The main motive was to bring change in society to tune with the ideals of the Sarvodaya.
Emergency halted all these initiatives, and the suspension of Articles 14, 19, 21, and 22 of the Constitution resulted in the deprivations of the fundamental rights of Indians. Acting fast, the Indira Gandhi government detained JP and the leaders of the opposing factions. Freedom of the press was fettered, and thousands were arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act.
JP bid for time, and immediately after the announcement of election on 18 January 1977, he plunged into the fight despite his failing health. He put together a disparate coalition of political parties and campaigned vigorously. His passionate plea to “defeat the dictators” reached every home, and the people of India, on whom JP had placed implicit faith, responded with fervour and enthusiasm. With the popular upsurge thus created, the Janata Party and its allies were victorious, winning 330 out of 542 seats. Winning just 2 out of the 234 seats, the Congress was virtually wiped out in the seven northern states.
The Janata government that JP crafted to counter Congress’ hegemony collapsed in mid-1979 due to egos, intrigues and betrayals among party members. JP passed away in October 1979, and Congress returned to power in January 1980. Despite being a crucial chapter of India’s post-Independence history, JP Movement and the Emergency were not properly chronicled for posterity.
Also read: Modi govt’s assault on democracy is more sinister than the Emergency. Look at the differences
A nation of lotus-eaters
We are a nation of lotus-eaters who celebrate frauds and ignore genuine patriots like JP. What Nelson Mandela said about South Africa — “The history of our country is characterised by too much forgetting. A forgetting which served the powerful and dispossessed the weak” — is truer in the case of India. Otherwise, this country would not have reached the nadir it has today in freedom and equity—the two noble ideals of JP.
It is in this context that eminent jurist Nani Palkhivala’s words become relevant: “Since public memory is so alarmingly short, let us reiterate our gratitude to the men who suffered in diverse ways and whose sacrifices made the restoration of freedom possible. The first name that springs to anyone’s mind is that of Jayaprakash Narayan. Not since the time of Gandhiji has moral force—personified by a frail invalid—triumphed so spectacularly over the forces of evil. He changed decisively the course of history. One life transformed the destiny of 620 million.” [“We The People”, Bombay, Strand Bookstall-1984]
Former US President Bill Clinton’s statement made at the turn of the century bears recalling too: “The story of 20th century is the triumph of freedom. We must never forget the meaning of the 20th century or the gifts of those who worked and marched, who fought and died for the triumph of Freedom.”
If there is one country to which “triumph of freedom” has the greatest relevance, it is India, the second-most populous nation in the world, afflicted with privation, poverty, and penury for the best part of the 20th century. It is in this country that JP “worked and marched, fought and died for the triumph of Freedom”, not once but twice—as a rebel during the freedom struggle, and later winning it back from the native ‘Emergency durbar’ under his own stewardship. This is a rarity, unparalleled in human history.
For this, JP should have been venerated and celebrated as the ‘second Mahatma’. Instead, he is forgotten and forlorn today. He was even missing from the Karnataka government’s poster of ‘freedom stalwarts’ put out during the 75th Independence Day celebrations, replaced by V.D. Savarkar. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party, which claim JP as their icon, have betrayed his legacy and abandoned the values for which he marched, fought and died. None of his political, social, and economic ideals—freedom, civil liberties, secularism, federalism, equity, Sarvodaya—are being adhered to. In fact, they are doing just the opposite. Electoral corruption, including the trading of legislators, has reached horrendous proportions, posing a clear danger to India’s democracy.
And from the autocratic way the country is being governed and freedoms suppressed, will India’s ‘story of the 21st century” be one of ‘enslavement’ instead of freedom? What a travesty to the memory of JP.
M.G. Devasahayam is a retired IAS officer and chairman of People-First. He also served in the Indian Army. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)