The man who loved going to jail

This year is the fiftieth death anniversary of the firebrand socialist Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and it is an apt occasion to remember his militant legacy. He died at the relatively young age of fifty seven in 1967. I too am fifty seven now and despite having trod the same path of mass politics as him, am still alive and have done precious little in comparison!! Lohia needs to be remembered today because he fought relentlessly against the corrupt dominance of the Indian National Congress and his mobilisation strategies are extremely valid today.

He is not much known outside the Indian socialist circle which itself has become very limited. A cursory search on the net does not reveal much with Wikipedia having an extremely brief entry. He was one of the founding members of the caucus of the Congress Socialist Party within the Indian National Congress in 1934 along with Jayaprakash Narayan and Acharya Narendra Dev. Jawaharlal Nehru encouraged these young firebrands because he was busy cleverly “burning the candle at both ends” to counter the Conservatives in the Congress led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. He played the mentor to them and gave them much greater importance than the mass following they commanded. Presiding over the crucial Lucknow Annual Convention of the Congress party in 1936, held against the backdrop of the British beginning to devolve power to the Indians and the emerging possibility of independence, he not only espoused socialism as the solution to India’s and the world’s problems but also nominated three members of the Congress Socialist Party to the Congress Working Committee. In this way he both countered the Conservatives and also co-opted these firebrands into the leadership and deflected them from pursuing subversive mass mobilisational work.

However, once their purpose of buttressing Nehru’s position vis-a-vis the Conservatives within the Congress was served, the Socialists found themselves rejected in the same way as the Gandhians after independence. They severed their connections with the Congress and formed the independent Socialist Party in 1948. Following exemplary democratic principles they also resigned their seats in the legislative assembly of the United Provinces and sought re-election. The Congress then used its art of winning by hook or by crook developed earlier during the 1936 elections to defeat the Socialists and push them into the political wilderness.

Ideally the Indian electoral system should have been based on proportional representation to accommodate the vast diversity in the socio-economic characteristics of the population. In this system political parties are allotted seats in the legislature in proportion to the votes that they get and so even small local parties who can get votes higher than a specified threshold can find representation in the legislature. There would thus have been scope for a thousand schools of thought to contend and bring to fruition a much more vibrant and diverse democratic culture than had obtained in British India. Instead the first past the post system was adopted in which the candidate getting the most number of the valid votes cast in a constituency is declared elected. This latter system was to the advantage of the Congress party which could get to rule unhampered on its own without the pulls and pressures of coalition governance that a system of proportional representation usually gives rise to and would certainly have in the diverse Indian context. So the first past the post electoral system of the British and American democracies, which the British had introduced to suit their own agenda of keeping the unruly masses at bay, was retained after independence giving the Congress an undue monopoly of power in the crucial first decade and a half of governance under the leadership of Nehru.

The first elections to the Lok Sabha held in 1951 saw the Congress winning just forty five percent of the total valid votes but as much as seventy five percent of the seats. Similarly in the second elections in 1957 the Congress won forty eight percent of the total valid votes and seventy five percent of the seats. In the third general elections of 1962 the Congress won forty five percent of the total valid votes and got seventy three percent of the seats. The second largest party by way of votes won in all these three elections was the Socialist Party but due to the fact that their support base was spread much thinner than the Congress’ they could not win seats in proportion to their votes. In 1951 the Socialists got ten and a half percent of the total valid votes but only two and a half percent of the seats. This is to be contrasted with the Communist Party of India, which won only three and a half percent of the votes and a similar percentage of the seats because their mass base was of a concentrated nature.

Right from the first general elections in 1951 money power, muscle power and the state machinery were used to vitiate the sanctity of the electoral process in such a way that there was little chance of an ethical person being able to win elections. Both the Socialists and the Communists lost out because of this in most areas except in a few niches where they were in such great mass strength that they could effectively counter the electoral mal practices of the Congress. Losing out on state power in a poor post-colonial country like India with an underdeveloped economy and civil society and an over-developed state apparatus meant losing out on everything as the state was the main collector and commander of resources and distributor of largesse. Control of state power also provided the Congress with the opportunity to get massive financial contributions from the industrialists – the nascent Indian capitalist class, in exchange for policies and programmes favourable to them. This further reduced the chances of the Socialists or the Communists of winning elections. Even when the Communists despite mountainous hurdles did manage to cobble together a government in Kerala, the first democratically elected Communist government in the world, Nehru threw all political scruples to the wind and dismissed the government in 1959 to impose Central rule in the state. Defections were engineered with the dangling of sops to win away elected representatives and their supporters. Thus there was a continuous exodus of workers and leaders from among the Socialists and Communists to the Congress.

The net result was that both the Socialists and Communists got effectively sidelined in the Nehru era and parliament lost its capacity to act as a check on governance, which increasingly became of a strong centrist nature shedding even the little formal federalism that had been provided for in the Constitution. The extent of the Congress hegemony can be gauged from the fact that the first no-confidence motion against Nehru’s government was moved only in the year 1963, all of sixteen years after independence by Ram Manohar Lohia, of which more later. Nehru became the supreme leader as head of both the government and the Congress party ruthlessly removing those who tried to stand up to him in opposition by overt and covert means and consciously promoting weak politicians without much mass following as the chief ministers in the states.  A patron-client relationship was set up beginning with Nehru at the top and a whole sycophantic pyramid going down to the lowest workers at the grassroots level all trying to dispense state favours.

The utter failure of the Indian state in bettering the lot of the millions of its poor citizens due to this unholy nexus between ruling politicians, industrialists, feudal lords and the bureaucracy and its devious attempts to camouflage this became apparent towards the end of the Nehru era itself when Dr Ram Manohar Lohia (He did his Phd from the Humboldt University on “Salt Taxation in India” and so was very knowledgeable about public finance) moved the famous first no-confidence motion against the Congress government in 1963. He alleged that whereas Rs 25,000 was being spent daily on Nehru the poor person was earning barely 3 annas or about 20 paise a day. The government response was that according to the estimates of the Planning Commission the average daily earning of a person were 15 annas or 95 paise and not 3 annas. In one of the most moving and well-researched of rebuttals in the history of Indian parliamentary debates Dr Lohia showed how the Planning Commission had arrived at its estimate by averaging the earnings of the richest people in the country with that of the poorest while his own estimate was based on a sample of only the poorest people of the country who constituted seventy per cent of its population. Member after member from the opposition who had been listed to speak on the motion gave up their time to allow Dr Lohia to put forth his case, which ruthlessly unmasked the reality of mis-governance and mal-development that Nehru’s penchant for modern industrial development at the expense of rural sustainability and equity had led to. The “three anna – fifteen anna debate”, as it came to be called, shook the complacency of the Nehruvian establishment for the first time in parliament and was to be a precursor of the eventual decline of the Congress party later.

Dr Ram Manohar Lohia’s greatest contribution was in the conduct of mass politics. He had stressed that jails were the best finishing schools for the people and activists of social movements and so they should be filled up to bursting in the course of civil disobedience actions  against the unjust laws and policies of the State. “Civil disobedience is armed reason” and “Jail Bharo” or filling up jails is its main weapon he said. While ridding the masses of the fear of incarceration, filling up jails en masse simultaneously stretches the state’s disciplining power to its limits. The mass jail bharo programme advocated by Dr Lohia is a potent strategy for fighting the state but it requires that the masses and activists learn to make the most of their sojourns in jail to strengthen their understanding of political economy instead of treating them as avoidable aberrations. Unfortunately with his premature death the Socialist Party lost an able leader and even though his example did produce many militant socialists, with time the edge of this militancy has been largely blunted.

We in the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath tried to follow in his footsteps and for quite some time did a lot to fill up jails. However, with time our edge too got blunted in the face of the powerful state and so its been close to two decades since I last went to prison!! But the blueprint provided by Dr Lohia is still there and I am sure some day in the near future it will come in handy when a militant mass movement for justice once again takes root.


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Rahul Banerjee Written by:

Rahul Banerjee, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (B.Tech in Civil Engineering) and Centre for Environmental Planning and Techonology University, Ahmedabad (Ph.D in Environmental Planning and Management) is a social activist and development researcher. He works along with the Bhil Adivasis (indigenous people) to synthesise their traditional qualities with modern skills and contribute to equitable and sustainable development as architects of their own future. Through the organisations Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, a trade union and Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (, a public trust. He blogs at

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