The Dream of Revolution: A Biography of Jayaprakash NarayanBimal Prasad and Sujata Prasad
272 pages|₹ 799
JAYAPRAKASH NARAYAN WAS lionized for a brand of politics that was free of compromises. A hero to hundreds of young Indians, he was mobbed by adoring crowds whenever he went to mobilize public opinion against Britain’s war strategy. He worked for the development of peasant and labour mass movements, taking pride in the successful strikes led by the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in Bihar. The official British response to the disruption of its war efforts and strikes in industrial centres was to arrest leaders. Labour leaders like SA Dange, BT Ranadive, S Mirajkar, ASK Iyengar and SP Parulekar were arrested in Bombay. The arrests spread to other parts of the country to include prominent leaders like Sajjad Zaheer, SV Ghate, NG Ranga, Rahul Sankrityayana and Sahajanand Saraswati. Jayaprakash was arrested from the Jamshedpur residence of one of his friends on March 7th 1940, incriminated by his rigid stance on the issue of war and a public appeal to Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) workers to strike. Pleading guilty to the charges levelled against him by the government prosecutor, Jayaprakash passionately proclaimed, “I have been charged with trying to impede the production of munitions and other supplies essential to the efficient prosecution of the war, and with trying to influence the conduct and attitude of the public in a manner prejudicial to the defence of British India and the efficient prosecution of the war. I plead guilty to these charges… As far as the charge of endangering the defence of British India, I think the irony of it cannot be lost upon us. A slave has no obligation to defend his slavery. His only obligation is to destroy his bondage. I hope we shall know how to defend ourselves when we have achieved our freedom.” The news of Jayaprakash’s arrest and his defiance during his trial turned him into a symbol of resistance. He was regarded as a man who always put his beliefs before political expediency. Despite their ideological differences, Gandhi spoke in support of Jayaprakash. “He is no ordinary worker. He is an authority on Socialism. It may be said that what he does not know of Western socialism, nobody else in India does. He is a fine fighter. He has forsaken all for the sake of the deliverance of his country… His industry is tireless. His capacity for suffering is not to be excelled. Is this arrest a prearranged plan, or is it a blunder committed by an overzealous officer? If it is the latter, it should be set right.” Nehru also emphasized the significance of Jayaprakash’s arrest, stating that the latter was a dear and valued comrade and that this action against him indicated the determination of the government to declare war on the Congress.
Jayaprakash was sentenced to a term of nine months at the Hazaribagh Central Jail. Amidst the national tumult, the atmosphere in the prison was relatively calm and he did not allow his spirit to falter. His stock of books was constantly replenished by friends. He found bliss in reading for many hours straight. He devoured John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, books on China and Japan, PG Wodehouse, complaining occasionally about the lack of periodicals like the New Leader and Labour Action due to “stupid” censorship. In a letter addressed to his close friend Minoo Masani, he sounded almost ebullient. “I have to thank you… for the excellent books… The Grapes of Wrath is an astounding thing. Such vividness combined with such scientific probity. Wodehouse, of course, never fails to cheer up the gloomiest hours. I had a hearty laugh all through and read it all at a stretch.” He was idolized by fellow inmates and gave classes on socialism to them. He also found time to comment on contemporary political developments through articles in select newspapers, writing under the pseudonym ‘A Congress Socialist’, a catch-all sobriquet for likeminded young socialists.
By this time, Jayaprakash was clearly moving towards a radical path of struggle. He felt that the Congress leadership was concentrated in the hands of a coterie that was anti-labour, anti-peasant and completely bourgeois in orientation. He planned to begin work on forming a new revolutionary party based on Marxism-Leninism. The new party was to be independent of other political organizations. It was envisaged as an underground network of revolutionaries, an organization carrying out illegal activities. With this context in mind, he wrote, “We need mass organs of struggle and for seizure of power. I see these in the kisan and mazdoor sabhas chiefly. These will have to be united in a mighty union of peasants’ and workers’ unions (Congress of Peasants’ and Workers’ Soviets). The formation of this union should be one of our objectives in the immediate future.”
Jayaprakash Narayan felt that the Congress leadership was concentrated in the hands of a coterie that was anti-labour, anti-peasant and completely bourgeois in orientation. He planned to begin work on forming a new revolutionary party based on Marxism-Leninism
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He also unremittingly listed the flaws of the Muslim League and its failure to participate in the freedom struggle. Jinnah, he felt, was a traitor and a conceited historical fool for all his Führer-like attitudes. Jayaprakash welcomed the decision of the Congress to launch a civil disobedience movement in its fifty-third session at Ramgarh in March 1940. Concomitantly, however, he debunked efforts of its leaders like C Rajagopalachari to persuade the AICC to adopt a resolution for cooperation in the war. He also critiqued Viceroy Lord Linlithgow’s proposal for dominion status of the Westminster variety. The proposal was hailed by the Congress president, Rajendra Prasad, as the clearest of all declarations hitherto made. Crusading strongly against this stand, Jayaprakash addressed a letter to Nehru on July 20th, 1940. “Dear Bhai, you can imagine how recent events have grieved and hurt us. Rajaji has stabbed us in the back. All of us here expect you and beseech you to lead the opposition in the AICC and the country. You should resign your seat in the Committee. After a settlement, that is. If it comes about, you must leave the Congress and form another political organisation to fulfil the remaining part of the political task and the main part of the social task of the Indian revolution. Will you do it?”
Jayaprakash also unremittingly listed the flaws of the Muslim League and its failure to participate in the freedom struggle. Jinnah, he felt, was a traitor and a conceited historical fool for all his Führer-like attitudes
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When Nehru failed to respond, Jayaprakash sent a secret undated letter to Subhas Bose through a special messenger. Spelling out his central contention, he wrote, “To my mind our basic task today is to chalk out a line of action that is fundamentally independent of the Congress… There is not an iota of doubt left that civil disobedience if started would be for no greater purpose than that of forcing concessions out of imperialism.. Our work henceforth must proceed on the opposite assumption entirely: that the Congress is no longer the main basis for political action. We must explain the character of the present Congress leadership in plain terms to the masses (negative). We must build-up their own instruments of struggle and teach them to depend solely upon those.” Bose had other plans. He was preparing for his escape from India. There was no response from his side either.
The closing months of 1940 were crammed with war-related narratives. The viceroy’s offer to set up a War Advisory Council and expand his own Executive Council to include the princely states “and other interests in the national life of India” could not address the soaring expectations of the people. The launch of the individual civil disobedience movement proposed by Gandhi seemed like a historical inevitability. After his prison term was over, towards the end of 1940, Jayaprakash was arrested again, in early 1941 in Bombay. He was kept for a short spell in the Arthur Road prison and then, without trial, in the barracks of a notorious camp jail at Deoli, 80 miles from Ajmer, set up to house hardened political prisoners. The prisoners were largely communists, Congress socialists, revolutionaries from Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, Royists, Labour Party comrades, members of the Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and people like Hakim Khan, a close associate of Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Jayaprakash saw Deoli as a great opportunity for mobilizing support for the armed struggle that he was dreaming of.
HE STRONGLY CRITIQUED political associates who were critical of socialism: “No one has a right to be disillusioned with Socialism or Communism because of disillusionment with the Stalin regime… It would be the same thing as being disillusioned with Gandhism after the Congress ministries. I have no doubt that if the Gandhian State came into being the Stalins of Gandhism in spite of their best intentions would make of it no better mess than Lenin’s successor has done with the Soviet State. But no one, on that account, should have the right to be disillusioned with Gandhism itself.” The prisoners in Deoli lived in barracks segregated into two camps. After a while, the detention authorities loosened up slightly and allowed members of both the camps to associate in the common playground in the morning and evening. These periods of recreation were enough for Jayaprakash to persuade organizations like the Revolutionary Socialist Party to come into the CSP fold. His ‘classes’ on Marxism were very popular, drawing the attention of a junior officer who agreed to smuggle letters out from the camp. In a note to a close friend, Jayaprakash complained that there were no Marxist books available at the camp. “Please send one copy of each from the books of Marx, Engels, Lenin… These books are necessary for the class work here.” His friends continued to send Jayaprakash books that helped in a “little intellectual spring-cleaning”. He enjoyed books with Marxian moorings such as Lucien Laurat’s Marxism and Democracy and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, one of the most celebrated political novels of the twentieth century, an indictment of Stalin’s purges in 1938. What possibly engaged him was Koestler’s quasi-Marxist rumination on history and destiny. He also used his time in debates about India’s position on the war with communist leaders like SA Dange, Muzaffar Ahmed, SS Mirajkar, Ajoy Ghosh and BT Ranadive. One of the most trenchant critiques of Jayaprakash’s politics came from his wife Prabhavati.
One of the most trenchant critiques of Jayaprakash’s politics came from his wife Prabhavati. She spent hours bent over her spinning wheel, upset when Jayaprakash questioned the role of khadi and charkha in resuscitating the villages of India, or in removing the grinding poverty of the masses
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In the 1930s, they lived together for short spells—at Swaraj Bhawan in Allahabad and a tiny house jointly rented with his socialist friend Ganga Sharan Sinha in Kadamkuan, Patna. It was a penniless, hand-to-mouth situation, with Gandhi bailing them out frequently with small grants. Jayaprakash’s associates during that period recall how he was often forced to travel ticketless. He was preoccupied with eighteen hours of political work daily, week after week, leading Gandhi to remark that Jayaprakash seemed more married to socialism than Prabhavati. His agnosticism troubled her, as did his political beliefs. She spent hours bent over her spinning wheel, upset when Jayaprakash questioned the role of khadi and charkha in resuscitating the villages of India, or in removing the grinding poverty of the masses. She fired off several letters to Gandhi expressing a nagging scepticism about their life together. Punctilious in answering her letters, Gandhi chafed against her scepticism, encouraging her to spend time with Jayaprakash, sometimes using levity to deal with her low spirits. By 1940, their relationship looked stronger. Jayaprakash kept Prabhavati free from any burden of expectation, sublimating his desire for physical intimacy. On her part, she seemed ready to embrace his complexity and his unusual commitments. Remembering her reaction to the news of Jayaprakash’s arrest in March 1940, a socialist comrade said that when he broke the news, she was at Ramgarh to attend the fifty-third session of the Congress. Her concern and anxiety surprised everyone. She visited Jayaprakash as often as she could at the Hazaribagh jail and later at Deoli. Her frequent visits prompted her involvement in the clandestine smuggling of letters from jail, carried out with some amount of ingenuity under Jayaprakash’s directions. “Take a big old book with a thick binding, tear the binding off, place the letter there, get the book bound again and send it… If you get this letter, tell me tomorrow in the interview that, ‘You had a headache last night.’ This will be a hint for me of the delivery.” To communicate that she had received a set of previous letters, she was told to use the following code: “All are well at the house of Babuni, both at Murar and at Daltonganj.” The smuggling of letters stopped when an important bundle of correspondence was seized by the superintendent of the detention camp. Jayaprakash tried to slip it into Prabhavati’s hands, under cover of handing her a sheet of paper with measurements for a new pair of slippers. Prabhavati flinched, drawing the attention of the jail officer. A scuffle between Jayaprakash and the officer followed. Eventually, the officer managed to raise an alarm. That, more or less, sealed the fate of the letters. Jayaprakash was roughed up and taken to the office of the superintendent who asked him whether he had any regrets. Characteristically, Jayaprakash’s only regret was that he had failed and been caught. The home ministry decided to publicize the text of Jayaprakash’s letters, with the aim of tarnishing his image and driving a wedge between him and Congress leaders. On October 18th, 1941, almost all the newspapers with the exception of The Hindu of Madras, Hindustan Times of Delhi and Free Press of Bombay published the full text of the letters. However, far from driving a wedge, the publication of the letters won him the admiration of the public. Even those who did not approve of his methods applauded Jayaprakash’s courage and singleminded determination to see the country free as soon as possible.
(This is an edited excerpt from The Dream of Revolution: A Biography of Jayaprakash Narayan; by Bimal Prasad and Sujata Prasad )