Jagjivan Ram, endearingly called Babuji, was a freedom fighter, a politician and a crusader for social justice. Babu Jagjivan ram was one of the lamps who showed the path of independence to India. Babu Jagjivan ram was unique, brighter than other lamps and was important, as he showed the path of upliftment alongside independence, to the depressed class which were in the darkness of discrimination, illiteracy and unawareness.
He showed the path by leading from the front. His meteoric rise in public life saw him emerge as an eminent and popular political leader, who devoted his entire life working for the welfare of the country. He belonged to the vintage era of modern Indian politics. As national leader, parliamentarian, Union Minister and champion of depressed classes, he had a towering presence and played a long innings spanning half a century in Indian politics. His enduring and quintessentially twentieth century political legacy reminds us of the fervour, idealism and indomitable spirit of India’s political leadership that not only fought and won freedom for the country, but also laid the firm foundation for a modern, democratic polity. Gifted with a flair for political leadership and moved by the ideals and goals of the socio-political events that enveloped the country, Babu Jagjivan Ram played a significant role in scripting our country’s political and constitutional development and social change. A passionate leader dedicated to public life, he enjoyed immense respect from all quarters. Widely admired for his leadership qualities and organizational abilities, he always remained a force to be reckoned with-in Indian politics.
Early life: leading from front
Jagjivan Ram was born in a low cast poor family on 5th April, 1908 at Chandwa, a small village in Shahabad district in Bihar. His parents were Shobhi Ram and Basanti Devi. Jagjivan Ram had an elder brother & three sisters. His father Shobhi Ram was in the British Army. He studied till class fifth in the school at Chandwa village. After Primary education, he joined the Middle School, Arrah in January in 1920. He joined the Arrah Town School in 1922 for higher education.
The school had separate water pitchers for Hindu and Muslim students. Some upper-caste boys refused to drink water out of the earthen pitcher touched by Jagjivan Ram and a separate pitcher was installed for the schedule castes. Outraged, Jagjivan Ram refused to tolerate this insult and broke the pitcher and when it was replaced he broke it again. Taking note of his protest the headmaster ordered that a common pitcher be installed for all the students. Though Jagjivan won his point, the discriminatory treatment meted out to him filled his heart with both grief and anger. He came face to face with the oppressive caste discrimination and bigotry of the upper castes that shackled his community for centuries and put abhorrent limits on him and his community’s life. He was much distressed by the discriminations meted out during student life.
In One incident of his life, on one of harvesting session, a relative came from Khopira to inform his mother that harvesting being completed, the paddy should be collected. Since his high school was closed for winter vacations, he volunteered himself for the task. The two proceeded to Khopira in a bullock cart which wound its way through the thicket and narrow pathways. As they approached the village, the relative nudged Babuji to the side of the cart. They were in the vicinity of the colony of the Babu Sahebs (the higher cast). According to the custom, untouchables had to get down from their bullock carts, take off their shoes, fold their umbrellas and walk through that part of the village with bowed heads. If they did not, they would attract abuse and assault. No one had ever questioned the demeaning custom. Some did not have the courage, others the conscience. Babuji decided to defy the custom. Refusing to fold his umbrella, take off his shoes, or get down from the wagon, he forced his relative to follow suit. The terror stricken relative trembled and quivered and begged him not to invite doom while Babuji firmly held him from falling off the cart. The Babu Sahebs were too taken aback to react and the cart slowly passed through the narrow lanes and by-lanes, trampling over the outdated system they had so zealously guarded. They pretended not to look, but watched stealthily from the corners of their eyes a new era emerge from the trail of dust raised by the cart. The élan and panache of the fearless boy aboard the cart dazzled the inhabitants of Khopira and changed the course of their lives in the days to come. He fought for himself, the oppressed and takes charge of one’s destiny.
In 1925, Pundit Madan Mohan Malaviya visited Arrah; Jagjivan Ram was a matric student then. Since Jagjivan Ram was the best student in the school, he was asked to read the welcome address. Pandit Madan Mohan was deeply impressed by the erudition and panache of Ram. And so he invited Jagjivan Ram to study at ‘Banaras Hindu University’. Jagjivan Ram took admission in Banaras Hindu University for Higher Education keeping in view Pandit Malaviya’s advice. He faced further caste based prejudices and hostility at Banaras Hindu University. He took accommodation in the university hostel. As a Dalit student, he would not be served meals in his hostel and denied haircut by local barbers. A Dalit barber would arrive from Ghazipur occasionally to trim his hair; he organised a protest against this discrimination, eventually boycotted BHU and pursued graduation from Calcutta University. The incidents in BHU left an impression on his mind and from there he advocated for social empowerment and social equality.
Believe in Hinduism and equality of different castes
After returning back to his village Chandwa in 1931, his mother wanted him to join a high government position. He wanted to please his mother by joining government service but his burning desire to work for the upliftment of Dalits and also for the independence of the country prevented him from doing so.
At this time there was famine in Bihar. There were starvation deaths everywhere. He worked tirelessly for the people of the area. At this time, Gandhi ji was in Yerwada prison. Dr. Rajendra Prasad was invited as the chief guest at a seminar to oppose untouchability held in an auditorium in Patna. Jagjivan Ram was also invited to the same seminar as a speaker. He said, “The objective of our life is to uproot the British rule from India. The Missionaries are tempting the untouchables with several offers to convert to Christianity by offering cash, land and free education. The untouchables are Hindus. We are born as Hindus and shall die so. We have created the nation and not vice-versa. This is our nation. Mahatma Gandhi has said that ‘untouchability shall have to be eradicated’. All India Congress Committee also support it. It has given a new hope to us, the oppressed people. It is my firm belief that Gandhi ji, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Vittal Bhai Patel shall implement this proposal in the interest of the nation. I shall vow for this. I shall not hesitate in making sacrifices. We shall rouse the society against religions conversions and Practice of discrimination against lower castes”.
This speech of Babu Jagjivan Ram impressed Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the Chief Guest of the function and also the audience. Rajendra Prasad was familiar with Babu Jagjivan Ram’s struggles during his student life. Babu Jagjivan Ram was invited by Rajendra Prasad and asked him to work for the Anti-untouchability League
The matter that exercised his mind the most was that of prevailing caste prejudice. He undertook an extensive study of the Vedas, Brahmin Granths, and the 18 Puranas (in original -Sanskrit), and their extensive commentaries in order to discover whether untouchability was divinely ordained. He concluded that it was not; instead it was an ugly manifestation of the stratification of Hindu society. He also understood that the only way for the community to break the barriers thrown up by caste prejudice was to assert its rights. The only way they could be assertive was through organizing themselves. A look towards the East showed him that a large number of members of his community, from his own home province, lived in Calcutta, working in hospitals and jute mills. Jagjivan, therefore, resolved to go to Calcutta and wake his community to their intrinsic power and create awareness of their potential strength and significance in national life.
The national movement led to considerable introspection as to why a nation, as great as India, became so enfeebled that it fell prey to foreign rule. Widely recognized among the causes of stagnation was the caste system, with its inequities and its injustice. Mahatma Gandhi spoke thus of its effect on our society: “Soil erosion eats up good soil. It is bad enough. Caste erosion is worse; it eats up men and divides men from men.” Fighting casteism became intrinsic to our national revival and Jagjivan Ramji helped to give it a concrete shape.
Lessons from his life
The incident, which left a lasting impact on him, occurred when he was around seven. It was rainy season and the tiny rivulet Gangi, which crisscrossed the eastern side of his village, had swelled. One hot afternoon, Jagjivan ram and his friend went for a swim after school. The current was too powerful for the young swimmers. Being closer to the shore, the friend managed to come out, but Babuji could not. Overcome by fierce mid-stream current he was fast drifting away when a woman spotted him. She had a long stick for driving her pigs. She rushed and extended the stick to rescue him. He saw the stick, outstretched his arm, and held it tight and using all his might came out. It all happened in a flash, but it kindled a light within him forever. By accident, he had chanced upon the mool-mantra, the basic philosophy of his life, which he never allowed himself to forget. That the elderly lady was, no doubt, a help, he would explain, but what really mattered was that he had the presence of mind to hold on to the stick and the strength within him to pull himself out. What is significant is that the incident became a reference point in his life, one to which he referred again and again for sustenance, especially in trying moments.
Similarly he wanted that the depressed class which was drowning should have the consensuses to uplift themselves. He can only provide the stick i.e. the political leadership but the strength of upliftment should come from inside in the depressed class.
Political leadership of depressed class: before independence
Jagjivan Ram’s political convictions came from certain observations that he made of society and his personal experience of politics in actual life. The first was that caste had been perverted from its original intention, into a social reality in which one group considered itself to be superior to another and deprived it of all rights. His suggestion for empowerment of scheduled caste was the unification of scheduled caste and community under a leadership and rise against discrimination among caste together. The only way to end this was for the oppressed to unite and through the strength of their numbers, bring to an end this discrimination. Simultaneously, the oppressed group must work with other sections of society and not against them. If it worked against other groups, it was not likely to end discrimination, but might even end up increasing it. One discerns a sense of agony but no acrimony in his approach to this thorny problem.
The country was electrified by the fast of Mahatma Gandhi at the act of the British Government in separating Caste Hindus and Scheduled Castes in electoral representation. An Anti-untouchability League was set up with Shri G.D. Birla as its provisional President. This Anti-untouchability league was founded by Mahatma Gandhi on 30, September, 1930. The Organization was later renamed the Harijan Sevak Sangh. Its purpose was social and economic upliftment of the Harijans, the Scheduled Castes as Gandhi ji now described them. Jagjivan ram actively participate in it. Due to his burgeoning reputation, Jagjivan Ram was also invited to attend the Leaders Conference in 1932 at Bombay. He also attended the Bihar Provincial Anti-untouchability Conference at Patna. Leaders of the Congress, Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha also attended. Jagjivan Ram was offended by the nature of the speeches being made, which bulldozes the onus for untouchability on the scheduled castes themselves. He retorted that only the upper castes needed to reform themselves. He also became the Secretary of the Bihar branch of the Harijan Sevak Sangh. However, due to his increased political activity, Jagjivan ram had to end his links with the Harijan Sevak Sangh later. For the rest of his life, Bihar was to be the epicentre of his activities.
At the All India Depressed Classes Leaders Unity Conference in Kanpur in 1935, Jagjivan Ram proved to be the guiding spirit. He pointed out that the Harijans would not be able to advance their efforts at social and economic upliftment if they were not able to secure representation for themselves in elected bodies. Moreover, there had to be unity among them, as they would otherwise nullify their efforts by working through a number of different and separate organizations. He also emphasized that it was important to be linked to the mainstream of the freedom movement, as exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress. As a result of his efforts, the All India Depressed Classes League was formed, with Rasik-lal Biswas as its President and P.N. Rajbhoj and Jagjivan Ram as Secretaries. He also became the President of the Bihar branch of the Depressed Classes League. A new and perplexing question arose, when Dr. Ambedkar threatened that the Scheduled Castes in the country would embrace a religion other than Hinduism in view of the blatant caste discrimination and Jagjivan Ram was opposed to this view. He attended the All India Mahasabha Conference at Pune in December 1936 with a 30-member strong delegation. The Party President, Malaviya appealed that all the disabilities put before Harijans should be removed. All went well, until an amendment was moved that while Harijans could enter temples, they could not enter the main shrine room. Taking objection to it, Jagjivan Ram threatened to leave. Malaviya stepped in and the move was dropped.
The temple entry movement gained momentum largely due to his efforts and today the doors of Jagannath temple at Puri, Vishwanath Mandir in Kashi and Meenakshi temple in Madurai, to name a few, are open for upper and lower castes alike. This goes to show the stature and prestige that Jagjivan Ram had acquired in just a few years.
In 1936, when he was just 28 years old, Jagjivan Ram began his parliamentary career as a nominated member of the Bihar Legislative Council. In 1937, he stood as a candidate of the Depressed Classes League and was elected unopposed to the Bihar Legislative Assembly from the East Central Shahabad (Rural) and he also ensured the unopposed victory of his Depressed Classes League candidates in all the 14 reserved constituencies. With such an unopposed and decisive victory, Babuji emerged as the kingmaker. Subsequently, the Congress invited him to join them.
As noted, Jagjivan Ram had strongly opposed Ambedkar’s views on conversion. He made his disagreement public and in the campaign for the Assembly elections in 1937, exhorted Harijans across the country not to cut them-selves off from the national mainstream.
In the elections to the Bihar Assembly in 1937, He became a Parliamentary Secretary in the First Congress Ministry, later on with responsibility for Development, Cooperatives and Industries. During his brief tenure, Jagjivan Ram did pioneering work in organizing the Department of Rural Development. He added an electrical and mechanical section to the Department of Industries. Even while he was Parliamentary Secretary, he organized the Khetihaar Mazdoor (agricultural labourer without land) Sabha to uphold the rights of agricultural labourers without land. Most of these landless agricultural labourers belong to depressed class. He was opposed by the socialists, who floated their own outfits.
Political leadership of depressed class: after independence
Babu Jagjivan Ram always espoused the cause of establishing a society based on social justice and political and economic equality. Throughout his life, he had fought for eradicating the evils of casteism and for mitigating the sufferings and deprivation of the backward classes. He was one of the titans who symbolized the dawn of a new era of assertion, equality and empowerment for the depressed classes with independence.
On 30 August, 1946, Babu Jagjivan Ram was one of the twelve leaders of the country, who were invited by Viceroy/Lord Wavell, to become a part of the Interim Government. He was the only representative of the Dalits in the Interim Government formed on 2 September 1946 and held the portfolio of Labour.
The new government with Jagjivan ram in the cabinet worked immensely for the upliftment of schedule cast. Many policies were formed and implemented like removal of landlord system, establishment of schools for scheduled caste children, social and industrial law to promote depressed class, formation of committee for more social inclusion in public places (temples, festivals etc.) , appeal to upper caste for social inclusion, equality (social & economic equality for empowerment), allocations of more funds to solve drinking water issues, inclusion in inter-caste dinner, cleaning of homes & habitat of scheduled caste community, abolishing the critical issue of drug abuse in scheduled caste, create awareness for education, 1950act-untouchability a crime, adoption of any activity or profession to earn livelihood and improvement of public transport.
As Labour Minister, he introduced time-tested policies and laws for welfare of labour which was composed of both scheduled class and economic weaker sections. He was instrumental in enacting some of the important legislations for labour, viz. the Minimum Wages Act, 1946; the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947; the Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Act; the Payment of Bonus Act, factories bill 1946, prevention of free or forced or compulsory labour bill 1949, etc. He actually laid down the foundation of social security by way of enacting the two important Acts, namely the Employees State Insurance Act, 1948 and the Provident Fund Act, 1952. He also tried to address many critical issues like child labour, formation & registration of labour union and bridging the divide between the employee and employer for the betterment of both parties.
He also advocated for attaining economic equality & social justice by developing economic democracy and make depressed class fully equipped to that. He also advocated for the development of utility services like post offices, bank, telephone offices, public transport etc. in rural areas for empowerment of both rural fauna & depressed groups.
In 1968 while addressing largely attended delegation session of Depressed Classes League, at Parade Ground Jammu Babu Ji said “Roti Aur Beti Brabri May Milti Hai, Biradri May Nahi (bread & relations are possible between persons of in equal financial status and not in equal caste status)”
This spoke volumes of the wisdom of the speaker’s mind and guidance to all weaker sections of society to get united to fight for their rights untidily forgetting their sub caste affiliations
Jagjivan Ramji wrote in his book Caste Challenge in India: “The liberation struggle of the Scheduled Castes has begun. There are many hurdles and impediments in the way. The fight is unequal. But we must struggle without any respite and without a pause. We must liberate ourselves for in our liberation lies the emancipation of mankind.”
A man of old world political morality, he had mass following in his own right, before and after Independence. In his capacity as a Member of Parliament, during the major part of which he was a Minister, he sought to address many long term issues before the country in the socio-economic spheres by shaping public opinion, policy and consensus. Till his last breath, he was a sitting member of the Lok Sabha —his Eighth term—never missing a Lok Sabha since the First General Election. Jagjivan Ram has had the distinction of being the longest—serving Minister in the history of Indian Parliament and the great leader of scheduled class.
Throughout his life, he believed passionately in human dignity and individual freedom. He detested human oppression and believed in the philosophy of with malice towards none and charity for all. His birth anniversary day is observed as SAMATA DIWAS as he believed in bringing equality among all in society.
“Empowerment comes from within and typically it’s stemmed and fostered by self-assurance. To feel empowered is to feel free and that’s when people do their best work. You can’t fake empowerment”