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Mahatma's choice

Gandhi wanted our first president to be someone who was a political and a moral leader. He placed his trust in a harijan khadi worker, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, writes.

columns Updated: Jul 08, 2012 23:29 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Hindustan Times

Did the Mahatma name anyone for the office of President of India?

There was no such office during his lifetime. And, towards the end of his life, he was preoccupied with the freedom of India turning into the partition of India and becoming a million nightmares. Thought of who should be in what position was not a priority with him.

Yet, the farsighted man of detail in him did think of a name.

He did? What name? Who?

Had there been 24x7 news channels at the time would he not have been drowned in a forest of cameras and mike-heads asking him to give the name?

If, in the May of 1947, when the Maha-tma did give the name, we knew that the first four letters of the man's name were 'Chak', we would have thought he was pointing to Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. That choice would have generated some debate but no surprise for CR was an absolute front-ranker.

If we knew that the last four letters of the preferred gentleman's name ended with 'ayya', sharp-guessers would have exclaimed 'Oh, Pattabhi Sitaramayya!'. The Andhra Congressman's name would have been something of a surprise but would have been quickly recognised as a worthy name.

But no. The man Gandhi had in mind was neither of those.

He was Chakrayya.

Chak… who?

Chakrayya was a young man from Andhra and, in the terminology of those times, a Harijan.

So where was he? What was he doing?

He was, alas, dead.

On May 28, 1947, Chakrayya died after being operated on for a brain tumour in Bombay.Gandhi was in Delhi at the time. In his prayer meeting at what was then called Bhangi Colony, on May 31, 1947, he said: "I feel like crying over his death, but I cannot cry…"

Haunted by the horrors of Noakhali and of Bihar where innocents in their hundreds had been slaughtered by communal fanatics , Gandhi went on to say, "For whom should I cry and for who should I refrain from crying?"

But within moments he was back to Chakrayya.

He was speaking in his workman-like Hindustani. His own words at that speech and in English translation, form part of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.

"… The time is fast approaching," he said, "when India will have to elect the first President of India. I would have proposed the name of Chakrayya had he been alive…"

No one among the nation's senior leaders then nor later is known to have reacted to this. At any rate, I have not come across any reference in Nehru's, CR's, Patel's or Prasad's writings to Chakrayya.

Chancing upon the Chakrayya reference I tried to get some information on him. But no, no luck. I tried friends in Andhra, friends in the Congress, Dalits and Dalit specialists, Gandhi experts. Blank.

No photo could I find of Chakrayya, why, not even his full name.

Was he from 'Andhra' Andhra or the Telangana region, was he Mala or Madiga, where did he study, did he study at all?

'Kahan ke pathik, kahan kinha hai gamanava…' is a Tulsidas song in which the women of a village Rama is passing through with Sita and Lakshman, ask the Prince of Ayodhya: where are you, traveller, from, and to which place are you headed? 'Kaun gram, kaun thaam he baasii…' - which is your village, which the home you reside in…?

Blank. Total blank. Perhaps this column will yield a shower of details on him.


All I could gather was that the young man had joined Gandhi at Sevagram in 1935 and become an expert khadi worker.

A harijan khadi worker for India's first President?

In today's terminology, an apolitical Dalit constructive worker.

Named, alas posthumously, by the Father of the Nation, as his choice for the first First Citizen of India.

India's promises are posthumous, her pains present.

Let us, for the merest moment, speculate on what if both Gandhi and Chakrayya were living in January 1950.

The Mahatma, still on his wandering feet, would have parleyed with Governor General Rajagopalachari, Premier Nehru, Deputy Premier Patel, recent Congress presidents Azad, Kripalani and Prasad. They can be imagined to have told him, "Bapu, the name is good, of course… we do not know him… but if you say so… the name… Chak… Chakrayya… has to be good… and what can be better for us a poor people than that someone from our most exploited community should head the new nation… but, Bapu, we have discussed this among ourselves… just the few of us… and after much thought and respect for you, Bapu, we feel that in the present situation when… you see, Bapu… Lord Mountbatten is being succeeded by one of us, by an Indian, we mean… and when the world is recovering from a deep crisis, both war-related and economic… and Pakistan is acquiring a new international status… it would like to see a name as India's first president that it recognises… like that of one of your fellow-freedom fighters… it does not have to be exactly one of us… but one like us… with political experience… political sensitivity… an understanding of the complexities of governance… who can advise us in crises… who has, well, what might be called political finesse… and then we have State visits… kings and presidents from other lands come… banquets have to be hosted…"

And the 78-year-old might have sighed and said, "You know better… after all I am an old man now… past his prime… you are all in charge… I was just hoping against hope that while you people run the government… with all your experience... and what was that word?… yes, 'finesse'… there will be one in our president who will give our country not just political leadership… that is important no doubt… but also a moral lead… by personal example… show us the value of using one's hands in honest labour… nobody uses his hands nowadays… only the brain… and the vocal chords!... As for banquets and using cutlery… I will teach it to Chakrayya in five minutes… He will give us the confidence that 'yah aadmi hum jaisa hai… patit aur paavan, dono'… trodden-under and yet unvengeful, noble-minded… That's all… Now you go ahead all of you, good men… I have some work to do… nothing earth-shaking… I have to mend the wheel of this old charkha… Chakrayya will help me do it…"

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Jun 29, 2012 22:49 IST