Ram Manohar Lohia:
The Che Of Non-Violence
By Niranjan Ramakrishan
24 March, 2005
June 9, 1964 issue of Student Voice (published in Atlanta, GA), the
newspaper of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee), carried
the following news report:
- A member of India's parliament was twice refused service at a Morrison's
cafeteria here, and was escorted away by police, the second time in
a patrol wagon. On both occasions May 27-28, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia was
accompanied by white persons and was dressed in native garb. Lohia was
here visiting integrated Tougaloo College."
It was just like
Rammanohar Lohia, who thought himself a world citizen, ready to fight
injustice in Mississippi. He had participated in the Nepalese struggle
against the Ranas and launched a Goan civil disobedience movement against
Portuguese rule. His role in the Indian Freedom Movement was well known
- 6 years in British jails, including spells of torture, in some 6 stints
in prison. After independence and another dozen -- by the time of his
first visit to the US in 1951 (see ), he had already been to jail
twice in Free India. To Lohia this was normal -- he was always engaged
in some cause, usually several. A strong advocate of civil disobedience
and non-violence, he wrote that "A way must be found to combat
injustice without weapons. That way has already been found. In the act
of civil disobedience lies the irresistible impulse of man without weapons
to justice and equality. Civil disobedience is armed reason".
During his 1951
trip to the US, Lohia spoke to audiences all across the south, including
Montgomery (where one report says Rosa Parks was also in the audience)
about Gandhi's method of non-violent non-cooperation.
A brilliant intellectual,
a Ph.D. from Berlin (1932), fluent in English, German, French, Hindi
and Bengali, he routinely fought battles on behalf of India's poorest,
speaking out about injustice and poverty sharply and without let-up.
When he arrived in Parliament in 1963, the country had had a one-party
government through three general elections. Lohia shook things up. He
had written a pamphlet, "25000 Rupees a Day", the amount spent
on Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an obscene sum in a country where
the vast majority lived on 3 annas (less than one-quarter of a rupee)
a day. Nehru demurred, saying that India's Planning Commision statistics
showed that the daily average income was more like 15 annas (a little
under a rupee) per day. Lohia demanded that this was an important issue,
one that cried out for a special debate. The controversy, still remembered
in India as the "Teen Anna Pandrah Anna (3 annas -15 annas)"
controversy, saw something akin to the tense excitement of "Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington". Member after member gave up his time
to Lohia as he built his case, demolishing the Planning Commission statistics
as fanciful. Not that the Commission was attempting to mislead, but
the reality was that a small number of rich people were pulling up the
average to present a wholly unrealistic picture. At that time, Lohia's
figure was true for over 70% of the population.
Unlike the Marxist
theories which became fashionable in the third world in the 50's and
60's, Lohia recognized that caste, more than class, was the huge stumbling
block to India's progress. Then as today, caste was politically incorrect
to mention in public, but most people practiced it in all aspects of
life -- birth, marriage, association and death. It was Lohia's thesis
that India had suffered reverses throughout her history because people
had viewed themselves as members of a caste rather than citizens of
a country. Caste, as Lohia put it, was congealed class. Class was mobile
caste. As such, the country was deprived of fresh ideas, because of
the narrowness and stultification of thought at the top, which was comprised
mainly of the upper castes, Brahmins and Baniyas, and tight compartmentalization
even there, the former dominant in the intellectual arena and the latter
in the business. A proponent of affirmative action, he compared it to
turning the earth to foster a better crop, urging the upper castes,
as he put it, "to voluntarily serve as the soil for lower castes
to flourish and grow", so that the country would profit from a
broader spectrum of talent and ideas.
In Lohia's words,
"Caste restricts opportunity. Restricted opportunity constricts
ability. Constricted ability further restricts opportunity. Where caste
prevails, opportunity and ability are restricted to ever-narrowing circles
of the people".  In his own party, the Samyukta (United) Socialist
Party, Lohia promoted lower caste candidates both by giving electoral
tickets and high party positions. Though he talked about caste incessantly,
he was not a casteist -- his aim was to make sure people voted for the
Socialist party candidate, no matter what his or her caste. His point
was that in order to make the country strong, everyone needed to have
a stake in it. To eliminate caste, his aphoristic prescription was,
"Roti and Beti", that is, people would have to break caste
barriers to eat together (Roti) and be willing to give their girls in
marriage to boys from other castes (Beti).
Lohia was early
to recognize that Marxism and Capitalism were similar in that both were
proponents of the Big Machine. It was his belief that Big Industry was
no solution for the third world (he even warned Americans, back in 1951,
about their lives being taken over by big corporations). He called Marxism
the "last weapon of Europe against Asia". Propounding the
"Principle of Equal Irrelevance", he rejected both Marxism
and Capitalism, which were often presented as the only alteratives for
third world nations. Nehru too had a similar view, at least insofar
as he observed to Andre Malraux that his challenge was to "build
a just society by just means". Lohia had a strong preference for
appropriate technology, which would reduce drudgery but not put the
common man at the mercy of far away forces. As early as 1951, he foresaw
a time of the 'monotonic mind', with nothing much to do because the
problems of living had been all addressed by technology.
Aside from the procedural
revolution of non-violent civil disobedience, bridging the rich-poor
divide, the elimination of caste and the revolution against incursions
of the big-machine, other revolutions in Lohia's list included tackling
Man-Woman inequality, banishing inequality based on color, and that
of preserving individual privacy against encroachment of the collective.
George Will once
wrote that though every city in the US had some monument to Jefferson,
there was no comparable memorial for Hamilton. He added, "If you
want to see the Hamilton Memorial, just look around you. You live in
it" . We can similarly say though not attributed to him, many
of Lohia's revolutions have advanced in India, some with greater degrees
of success than others. In some instances the revolutions have led to
perverse results which he would have found distasteful. But Lohia wasn't
one to shy away from either controversy or struggle. Unlike the democrats
in our current Congress who adopt the Rodney King motto of "Can't
we all just get along", Lohia believed that a party grew by taking
up causes. He was a strong believer in popular action. In India's parliamentary
system, where elections could be called even before the term was over,
he once said that "Live communities don't wait for five years (the
term of the parliament)", meaning that a government which misruled
should be thrown out by the people. He carried out this idea by moving
the first no-confidence motion against the Nehru government, which had
by then been in office for a 16 years!
Lohia is often called
a maverick socialist, a cliched but nevertheless apt description. But
he gave that impression not to be controversial, but because he was
always evolving his thoughts, and like his mentor, Gandhi, did not hesitate
to speak the truth as he saw it. He often surprised both supporters
and opponents. He astounded everyone by calling for India to produce
the bomb, after the Chinese aggression of 1962. He was anti-English,
saying that the British ruled India with bullet and language (bandhook
ki goli aur angrezi ki boli). Full of unforgettable phrases which would
characterize a point of view, he captured who was a member of India's
ruling class in with near-mathematical precision that I have not seen
bettered in three decades -- "high-caste, wealth, and knowledge
of English are the three requisites, with anyone possessing two of these
belonging to the ruling class". The definition still holds.
was regarded by friend and foe alike as an honest, brilliant, and profound
man. He inspired deep loyalty and enormous respect, and to his followers,
the words "Doctor Sahib" would conjure up only one image.
He lived and died in simplicity, owning nothing. His death was a huge
loss to India, for she had lost her one of her finest political minds.
He was only 57.
Dr. Lohia would
have been 95 today.
is a writer living on the West Coast. His articles can be found on
http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles. His father, K. G.
Ramakrishnan was a friend and associate of Dr. Lohia. Niranjan can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He is working on a website, www.drlohia.com, devoted to the writings
and ideas of Rammanohar Lohia, to be released on Lohia's Birth Centenary.