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Dr. Rajendra Prasad

President: 1884-1963 (Bombay, 1934)

Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of independent India, was born on 3 December, 1884, in an obscure village in the Saran district of North Bihar.

His life was to be an embodiment of Gandhian principles. He was to Gandhi ji, to quote Sarojini Naidu, what John was to Christ. Jawaharlal called him the symbol of Bharat and found "truth looking at you through those eyes".

He passed the Entrance examination of Calcutta University at the age of eighteen, in 1902, standing first in the first division. At that time the educational jurisdiction of the Calcutta University extended from Sadiya, the easternmost frontier of British India, to a little beyond Peshawar on the North-west. The feat was indeed remarkable. He joined Presidency College, Calcutta. He had been initiated into the cult of 'Swadeshi' by his elder brother, Mahendra Prasad, even before his arrival in Calcutta.

The formation of the Bihari Students' Conference followed in 1908. It was the first organisation of its kind in India. It not only led to an awakening, it nurtured and produced practically the entire political leadership of the twenties in Bihar. At the time he set himself up as a legal practitioner in Calcutta in 1911, apprenticed to Khan Bahadur Shamsul Huda, he had also joined the Indian National Congress and was elected to the AICC.

A year earlier, he impressed Sir Asutosh Mukherjee so deeply that the latter offered him a Lectureship in Presidency Law College. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, one of the greatest political leaders of India in those days, had met him in Calcutta a year earlier and had exhorted him to join the Servants of India Society in Poona, but the pressure of his family held him back. He started his practice in Patna on the establishment of the High Court of Bihar and Orissa.

In the April 1917 AICC session held in Calcutta, Gandhi ji and Rajendra Prasad sat very close to each other but he did not know that Gandhi ji was to be taken to his residence in Patna on his way to Champaran. This meeting with Gandhi ji became a turning point in his career. He stayed with Gandhi ji till his trial was over. Thereafter, things in the country took a different course because of the Rowlatt Act and the Punjab upheaval.

He took the plunge in 1920, even before the civil disobedience and non-cooperation resolution of the special session of the Calcutta Congress in September had been confirmed by the regular session held in December at Nagpur. He openly pledged himself to defy unrighteous laws, and resorted to civil disobedience and noncooperation. He thus, constituted himself more or less as an outlaw in the eyes of the British Government in India.

The decades that followed were years of intense activity and much suffering. He was the first leading political figure in the Eastern Provinces to join forces with Gandhi ji at a time when the latter was without a large and effective following. Another such leader from the West who joined Gandhi ji was Vallabhbhai Patel. During the Nagpur Flag Satyagraha, Rajendra Prasad and Vallabhbhai became closer. He cherished Sardar's friendship as one of the most pleasant memories of his life. He often went to Sabarmati and toured the country with Gandhi ji.

He suffered several terms of rigorous imprisonment. He was in jail when on 15 January 1934 the devastating earthquake in Bihar occurred. He was released two days later. Though ailing, he set himself immediately to the task of raising funds and organising relief. The Viceroy also raised a fund for the purpose. While his fund swelled to over 38 lakhs, the Viceroy's fund, despite his great influence, resources and prestige, remained at one third of the amount. The way relief was organised left nothing to be desired. Nationalist India expressed its admiration by electing him to be the President of the Bombay session of the Indian National Congress.

When the Congress Ministries were formed in 1937, it was the Parliamentary Board consisting of Sardar Patel, Rajendra Babu and Maulana Azad, which really and effectively provided guidance and control. In 1939 when Subhas Chandra Bose had to be relieved of the office of the Congress President, it was Rajendra Prasad who was persuaded to take over the presidency to overcome the crisis of leadership.

The Congress faced another crisis when Acharya Kripalani resigned. Again Rajendra Babu had to step into the breach. His stewardship of the Constituent Assembly was exemplary. His elevation to the Presidency of the Republic in 1950 came as a matter of course.

There were some doubts in some quarters. Could a person who was temperamentally a peasant, who lived and dressed like one, impress in an office where ceremonials and gilded trappings counted?

But he was a great success. As President, he exercised his moderating influence and moulded policies or actions silently and unobtrusively. He was an asset to Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister. It was in 1960 that he announced his intention to retire, and though there were many regrets and many tried to persuade him to continue for a third time, his mind was made up.

Jayaprakash Narayan welcomed the decision, suggesting that his direct guidance might be available after retirement to the Sarvodaya Movement. But his illness, severe and protracted, shattered Rajendra Prasad's health completely.

On 28 February 1963 he passed away. Rajendra Babu shared Gandhiji's great vision, the making of a new man in a new society. His mind was capable of broad sweeps. And yet, it would take in at the same time, the smallest of details.

“In the name of preventing commercial discrimination against the British, it is really ensured that the Indian should be discriminated against in the future as he has been in the past. It must be the experience of all businessmen who have anything to do with the Government - and they cannot move an inch without coming across the Government in some form or another - how at every step they have to face situations which a Britisher here has not to face.

Go to the coal fields. They will tell you how it is difficult for an Indian colliery to get a railway siding to his colliery, how it is difficult for him to get wagons and how the Indian is every day discriminated against in practice. I am not mentioning how it has been possible for a few British concerns to get leases of practically the whole area with the best seams of coal and how Indians have to be content with second and third class collieries and even these they get with difficulty.”

From the Presidential Address - Dr Rajendra Prasad. I.N.C. Session, 1934, Bombay