Today marks the beginning of the birth centenary celebrations of Babu Jagjivan Ram. The government and the people of India should consider ways and means to commemorate his contributions to the nation. One obvious way would be to confer the Bharat Ratna on him, posthumously. His life and work fulfils in an exceptional and incomparable measure the criterion of distinguished and outstanding public service for the Bharat Ratna. To confer the honour on him would be to recognise the Gandhian dimension of the national discourse for Dalit welfare.
Babuji was sworn in as a member of the first Interim Cabinet on September 2, 1946, when the nation stood on the threshold of freedom. Barely 39, he was then the youngest and most representative Dalit in the cabinet led by Jawaharlal Nehru and on the national scene. BR Ambedkar joined the cabinet later, because MK Gandhi intervened on his behalf. Babuji was a vintage parliamentarian, elected under the Government of India Act, 1935. The elections represented a resounding victory for the All India Congress and a rout for other groups and fractions opposed to the Congress. Overtures were then made to Babuji by the British rulers. He repelled the approaches with contempt. It was then that Bapu gave him the great testimonial describing him as ‘fire-tested 24-karat gold’.
Babuji’s life is an inspiring saga of distinguished public service. As a pupil of Gandhiji and an able lieutenant of Rajendra Prasad, his role in public life was conciliatory, constructive and integrationist. He served in the Central Cabinet for nearly 31 years. He was a successful minister holding portfolios as diverse as labour, communications, transport, railways, employment, rehabilitation, food, agriculture, cooperation, community development, defence, and irrigation. His successes in the fields of food and agriculture and defence during critical times were monumental. Babuji was by common consent an unsurpassed parliamentarian. In Babuji there was a native homespun charm of wit, warmth and wisdom.
The most glorious chapter of his political life was when he was the Defence Minister, when Pakistan was trounced and Bangladesh was born. We remember Babuji as a progressive statesman, a gentle messiah with the spiritual inheritance of his father, Guru Ravi Das, and Mahatma Gandhi in public life. Confrontation was not his style, pragmatism and solution of problems was his forte.
After Sardar Patel, he was perhaps the most astute administrator. In him, Dalits found a leader of great stature and a statesman with high quality insight and perspicacity. In this centenary year, to commemorate his life and work, we must work towards a world parliamentary academy.
LM Singhvi is a constitutional expert