A freedom fighter, a crusader for social justice, a champion of the depressed classes, an outstanding parliamentarian, an able administrator and an exceptionally gifted orator — Babu Jagjivan Ram was indeed a unique personality in independent India’s political landscape. He symbolised the dawn of a new era of equality and empowerment of the Dalits. Born in the small village of Chandwa in Bhojpur district on April 5, 1908, he was a victim of caste-based discrimination in school. He protested when a separate pitcher was designated for him in the school and succeeded in getting it removed. He went on to study at the prestigious Banaras Hindu University and graduated from Kolkata University.
As a graduate in his mid-20s, Babuji could have taken up a government job and made use of the many benefits that came along with such a position. Or he could have joined the revolutionaries. But he did not opt for either and instead followed the Gandhian path of ahimsa and satyagraha. He founded the Khetihar Mazdoor Sabha to help agricultural labour and the All India Depressed Classes League to help the depressed classes participate in the freedom movement. He believed that Dalit leaders should fight for not only reforms but also political representation. Inspired by Gandhiji’s ideals, he courted arrest on December 10, 1940. He was arrested again on August 19, 1942, for participating in the Quit India Movement.
Babuji had a distinguished political career that lasted for over five decades. In 1936, he stood as a candidate of the Depressed Classes League and was elected unopposed to the Bihar legislative assembly. When the Congress government was formed in 1937, Babuji was appointed parliamentary secretary in the ministry of education and development. He had the unique distinction of serving as a member of the central legislature for 40 continuous years. He was also the longest-serving minister in the history of Parliament. Till his last breath, Babuji was a sitting member of the Lok Sabha; it was his eighth term. As a labour minister, he laid the foundations for social security by enacting the Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948, and the Employees’ Provident Fund Act, 1952. As food and agriculture minister, Babuji heralded the Green Revolution. He also organised the public distribution system to ensure that foodgrain are made available to the needy at reasonable prices.
The historic victory of India in the 1971 war bears testimony to Babuji’s confidence, patience and abilities as India’s defence minister. It’s worth recalling that in 1971, when the armed forces were fighting for the liberation of Bangladesh, a lot of defence material was procured at short notice. In 1972, after the victory, when more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers were sent to Indian cantonments and looked after for a year, massive amounts of tentage, clothing and foodgrains were procured. Undoubtedly, it was due to Babuji’s integrity, commitment and organisational skills that the exercise was implemented smoothly. I had the privilege of being a Cabinet colleague of Babuji for a decade in 1967. He had a lot of affection for me and I respected him greatly. His interventions in Cabinet meetings were generally brief but always effective. On his 105th birthday today, let’s recall Babuji’s valuable services to the nation and pay homage to this great personality.
Karan Singh is a Rajya Sabha member
The views expressed by the author are personal