Thoughts & Ideas

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Rediscovering Babu Rajendra Prasad

This story has its origins quite long ago. Sometime in 1988 or 1989 I was sent on deputation as a temporary Branch Manager of State Bank of India, Pothia (in Katihar District, Bihar). This particular branch lay far from the beaten track and since the incumbent Branch Manager desperately needed leave, which could not be granted without his handing over charge to someone, I was asked to take-over. I was then posted at the nearby SBI Branch in Kursela.

I had believed that Kursela was the end of the civilized world as I then knew it, because I had not yet seen Pothia. For the uninitiated, being posted to Purnea Module of SBI was bad enough (referred to as a Kala Pani posting). Thereafter, being sent to Kursela was the ultimate in bad-luck or insult. Kursela happened to be about one and half hour by road from Purnea. Pothia was reached by traveling down a side road (today I would call it a dirt track) from Kursela for another 12 – 13 kms.

I commuted to Pothia by bus from Kursela, the only available public transport. It was a old, cankerous bus, hand painted in red which left Kursela at about 8 in the morning and took about an hour to reach Pothia before meandering off to some place I never ventured out to explore. The bus used to be full both inside and outside with people and their effects (bags, trussed sacks, wicker baskets of chickens, goats, market produce etc. etc.). With people clinging to every possible hand-hold, toe hold, and foot hold, it was difficult to see the actual bus. How I wish I had had a camera to record it!

On my first journey from Kursela to Pothia, I had much difficulty in getting inside the bus. But on the return journey, one of my staff members had informed the driver or the conductor that I was the “Manager Saheb”, so I was given a seat. Thereafter, howsoever crowded the bus was, I used to be given a seat and in case there was no seats to be had, I used to share the driver’s seat!

Work load at Pothia was light and time lay heavy on my hands, legs, body and mind. Then I chanced upon a copy of M J Akbar’s “India the Siege Within” lying somewhere in the Branch, though no one had any idea how it had reached there. For want of anything better I started reading the book and finished it over the four – five days or so I spent in Pothia. And I got hooked to Akbar’s writings. In due course I tried to read all his other writings and in the process came across his book “Nehru – The Making of India”.  In this book, Akbar endorses the historian S Gopal’s view of Dr. Rajendra Prasad as a person with “inferior intellectual quality” and “a social outlook which belonged to the eighteenth century” (page 459). This was jarring, to say the least, specially to a Bihari Kayastha like me. I had grown up believing that the greatest nationalist leaders after Gandhiji were Babu Rajendra Prasad and Jayaprakash Narayan along with of course Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel. The rest of the freedom fighter fraternity fell in a lower order of beings. While, JP forsake formal politics in favour of nation building through the Sarvodaya movement, Rajendra Babu provided the stability and perfect foil for Nehruji in the building of a modern India. His sterling contribution in the making of the Indian Constitution is also well known.
Akbar’s viewpoint was quite upsetting as it went counter to all that I heard or knew about Rajendra Babu. The impressions I carried about Rajendra Babu included on how he came up from a humble rural background, how he always topped his class, his exemplary scholastic record at Calcutta University, his taking up law, and then leaving legal practice to devote himself fully in the freedom struggle, and lastly (the ultimate) how he came back and spent the remaining years of his life in two rooms in Sadaqat Ashram after completing his term as President of India (Will somebody tell this to Pratibha Patil?).

However, by this time I was so enamoured by Akbar’s writings that I somewhat grudgingly though hesitantly accepted his (and Gopal’s) views on Rajendra Babu’s intellectual capacity.

Akbar’s book on Nehru prompted me to read Nehruji’s “Autobiography” and “Discovery of India”. I was very much impressed by both these books. Not just in terms of Nehru’s command over language, but also the glimpses which these books gave to Nehru’s depth, vision, and passion. This was even more commendable since both the books were written in prison where Nehru had limited resources available in terms of research material, books etc. Since then I have been a big supporter of Nehru and believe these two books should be read by all educated Indians, a view point I share with all and sundry. My ardour for Akbar's writings also remains intact.

I had very little personal knowledge about Rajendra Prasad except what one heard bandied about, and the little that is mentioned in school history books. I had read his book “Satyagrah in Champaran”, which suggested a sincere person of gentle nature. There was nothing which was very forceful about it. Later I read the English translation of his book Gandhiji ke Kadmon Mein (In the Footsteps of Gandhiji) which reinforced the same impression. Someone, who was sincere, down-to-earth, and committed. I did not give much thought to Rajendra Babu’s intellectual accomplishments or acumen.

Recently, in September 2012, I chanced on Rajendra Prasad’s autobiography published by Penguin. The original version was written in Hindi, but the English translation has the benefit of having been edited by Rajendra Babu himself. I was not even aware that Rajendra Babu had written his autobiography. Out of sheer curiosity, I purchased the book and read it. A simple story, without embellishments, narrated with a lot of humility. But it whetted my interest, and thanks to the wonderful powers of the net downloaded another book of his, titled “India Divided’. This book puts forth the pros and cons for creation of Pakistan and was written in the early forties, i.e., before Pakistan became a reality but when the possibility was being widely discussed. I was really struck by the depth of research and understanding of the person who had written it.  The book is ponderous and takes some time and effort going through. However, it examines the whole issue of the rationale for creation of Pakistan. Dr. Prasad, places not just his own views, but also the viewpoint of nearly all major players of the time, some of which are quite critical and contrary to his viewpoint. He quotes extensively from various sources with the intention of giving the reader a complete perspective, so that the reader can then make a considered opinion. This book was not written by a man with “inferior intellectual quality”, or someone who lacked either passion, or a mind of his own. 

Dedication of India Divided

Maybe Rajendra Babu lacked the world view or sophistication of Nehru, but he did not lack depth. And as one of the organisation men of the Congress he was instrumental in carrying the flock together and maintaining the gears of the Congress machinery moving. Anyone who has ever participated in management of his or her housing society would appreciate how difficult it is to coordinate the views of a group of people, all with strong viewpoints! 

Is it because of Babu Rajendra Prasad’s inherent humility that he has been interpreted by both Gopal  and M J Akbar as being a person with “inferior intellectual quality”?