Babuji: Popular Dalit Leader, An able Administrator and a Nation-Builder
Babu Jagjivan Ram was perhaps the most popular Dalit leader India had after Independence.
From being first elected as a member of Bihar Vidhan Parishad in 1936, he continuously went on winning all his elections as a Parliamentarian up to 1984, two years before his death. But his work towards the political empowerment of Dalits had begun much earlier when in 1935, he appeared before the Hammond Commission, and strongly advocated that Dalits should exercise their franchise in the election of 1936-1937. The enfranchisement of Dalits as having one man one vote, and one vote one value began from then on. But it was by virtue of the important ministerial positions held by him that Babu Jagjivan Ram occupies a unique position in the arc of Dalit political mobilisation. But to look at Jagjivan Ram only through the lens of caste would mean great disservice to the contribution of this giant statesman. In post-independent India, Babuji has left an indelible mark as nation-builder. He held several important portfolios, Labour, Railways, Transport and Communications, Food and Agriculture, Irrigation and Defence, also serving as the country’s Deputy Prime Minister.
As Labour Minister, it is he who introduced the time-tested policies and laws for labour welfare. He was instrumental in enacting some of the landmark legislations for labour, viz. the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; the Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Act, 1960; the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965, etc. Further, he laid the foundation of social security by way of enacting two important legislations, namely, the Employee State Insurance Act, 1948 and the Provident Fund Act, 1952. As Minister of Communications, he nationalized the private airlines and spread postal facilities to the remote villages. Babuji strengthened the civil aviation sector and resulting in the genesis of Air India and Indian Airlines as a national air carrier by enacting the Air Corporation Act, 1953.
But Babuji’s farsightedness is evident during his tenure as the Railway Minister, he was instrumental in the Brahmaputra bridge being built, thereby connected Assam and other North-East bordering States with the mainland of the country and paving way for the complete development of that region, apart from keeping in mind the strategic importance of the North- East. He, further gave a new thrust for modernisation of the Railways and took innumerable welfare measures for Railway employees. In fact, it was in 1957, that for the first time under Babuji’s initiative (as the Minister of Railways) that reservation in promotion for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were issued for the first time. His decision met with serious protests and opposition and the matter was brought before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court too upheld this policy and the provision of reservation in promotion has been in existence ever since. But his glory reached its pinnacle during his term as India’s Defence Minister, when Babu Jagjivan Ram oversaw the liberation of Bangladesh, under the dynamic leadership of Smt. Indira Gandhi. In his historic parliamentary statement on December 16, 1971 announcing the emergence of Independent Bangladesh, he says “I have an announcement to make. The West Pakistani forces have unconditionally surrendered in Bangladesh... Dacca (now called Dhaka) is now the free capital of a free country,” minutes after Pakistani troops conceded defeat to the Indo-Bangla joint forces after nine months of war. In fact, the then chief of general staff in Eastern command Lt. Gen. (retd.) JFR Jacob described him as “perhaps the best Defence minister we (India) have had…He had an excellent grasp of military strategy. He was also an able administrator. It was Jagjivan Ram who made sure that the requirements of the three Services: manpower, weaponry equipment and infrastructural facilities were provided, as far as possible.” Babu Jagjivan Ram had pulled the country out of the clutches of a severe drought, heralded the Green Revolution and for the first time, made India self-sufficient in food.
He stopped the import of wheat from U.S.A under the humiliating condition of P.L. 480. He also organized the Public Distribution System to ensure that the food is made available to the masses at a reasonable price. His contribution to modernising Indian agriculture, during his two tenures as Union Agriculture Minister are still remembered, especially during the droughts of 1967 and 1974. With firm determination, he ensured that nobody died of hunger. The renowned agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, who worked closely with Jagjivan Ram, wrote in The Hindu in February 2008: “Babuji [Jagjivan Ram] was deeply concerned with issues of social inclusion in access to new technologies….[He] felt that small and marginal farmers might not be able to purchase the new seeds and the fertilisers needed for enabling them to realise the full genetic potential for yield of the new strains. Therefore, he initiated the Small and Marginal Farmers and Landless Labour Programmes in order to provide the needed credit and inputs to those who would have otherwise been bypassed by new technologies. Thanks to this important step, all farmers could benefit from high yielding varieties of wheat, rice and other crops leading to a small government programme becoming a mass movement.” Indira Gandhi, knew of Babuji’s acumen and farsightedness. In 1974, she further entrusted him with the added responsibility of accelerating progress in the field of irrigation along with that of Agriculture. He served as Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation during 1974-77.
He always maintained that irrigation should be linked to agriculture in political oversight and decision making. Minor irrigation including rain water harvesting, conservation and aquifer recharge was his special focus. His policy was to promote command area development in irrigated areas and watershed development in rain-fed areas. Babu Jagjivan Ram was a leader with a strong sense of justice. He consistently believed in giving each and every community a fair and equitable deal. But when the Shimla talks (resulting in the Cabinet Mission Plan) between the Congress and the Muslim League were being held in 1945, he could see that the interests of the untouchables, who he saw as a minority too, were not been considered. He agreed with Dr. Ambedkar that the Dalits had been treated unfairly by the Cabinet Mission, and reiterated the demand of the Depressed Classes League that ‘Scheduled Castes should be given representation in the Constituent Assembly and the Legislative Assembly in proportion to their population in a province.’ This was the same line as articulated by Dr. Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation. In fact, Jagjivan Ram had realised that not much progress had occurred in society for the Dalits till the 1940s and reassessed his position.
It even prompted him to agree with Wavell’s characterization in 1944 of the Congress as a caste-Hindu party, a description strongly opposed by Gandhi. In fact, in a public statement approving Wavell’s position, he argued that the Poona Pact was a clear acknowledgment of two sections of Hindus, the ‘Harijan’ and the ‘non-Harijans and Hindus’. This radicalism in a leading Congress Harijan leader indicates the character and temper of Dalit politics at that time. Though this statement created an outrage, it made him realise the latent trait of his character of not compromising on the principle that mattered to him the most. He never regretted this action and this gave him the firm conviction to stand for his conscience that for any other extraneous consideration. And this only earned him greater admiration as a statesman. In the days after independence, there were few Scheduled Caste officers at the Centre or in the States. The Chief Ministers also belonged to the so called upper castes.
It was the political clout and the mass leader in Babuji that made them acknowledge his role as a prime mover for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes after the demise of Ambedkar. Babuji made them implement reservation, and start other schemes for SC/STs, open hostels, and work against untouchability. The Chief Ministers themselves would regularly send to him the implementation reports of reservation and welfare scheme Babuji was instrumental in the enactment of the Anti-Untouchability Act, which was modified in 1976 and named as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955.
Author is a Chairman, SC Dept, AICC