Thursday, October 8, 2015

Work in Progress : 6

A Political Biography of Dr Rajendra Prasad

By Dr BSM Murty

Extract from Part VII, Chap. 2
Story of the Presidents Tours during 1952-'57

Presidential Itineraries
In the summer and autumn seasons of sultriness and humidity in Delhi the President would generally spend a few weeks in Shimla or Panchmarhi where the climate was more salubrious. Later in his tenure, he would also spend some weeks in the south in Hyderabad, Bangalore or Mysore. In this regard, in a letter to Nehru on 14 July , 1955, he had written:

In accordance with the decision which we took last year that the President should spend some time every year in the South, I spent some five weeks in Mysore and Bangalore last year and about three weeks in Hyderabad this year. It was also decided that the 15th of August shouls ordinarily be observed by me in some suitable place in the South…. I think it would be desirable to have a permanent residence for the President somewhere in the South where he could spend the time and making which the central place he could visit other places. During my stay at Hyderabad I found that the climate there was quite nice during the rainy season, and that is the season which will have to be spent in the South, considering that we have to observe the 15th of August every year there. I was also considering what place would be most suitable, and it seems to me that the real choice lies between Bangalore and Hyderabad. On the whole I have felt inclined in favour of Hyderabad…

He even suggested that the existing Residency building in Hyderabad, already in possession of the government, could suitably be furnished to serve as the Presidential residence in the South. The suggestion was ultimately implemented and Hyderabad came to have the ‘Rashtrapati Nilayam’ where Dr Prasad would annually visit  and stay during the summer months. With his base camp at the Nilayam, Dr Prasad would also visit other places in the South like Madras, Madurai, Kanchipuram, Kanya Kumari, Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora caves, etc with his family members. His granddaughter Tara, in her reminiscences [BKCM121-150] gives a detailed account of these itenerararies, though the President would mostly remain preoccupied with his official work and with meeting local leaders and gentry.

Besides these journeys to the South, the President would be visiting, once or twice every month, places in northern states for brief periods for inaugural or ceremonial functions at universities or similar academic institutions, and almost all these visits would be by long train journeys in a special presidential saloon, often interspersed with car travels. These frequent presidential soujourns could be traced in some detail on the basis of the letters, speeches and other documents available in the CSD volumes, and a sample listing of such ceremonial visits to different destinations is to be seen in K.K.Dutta’s short biographical book [232-37], but they are, at best, of purely academic interest. Among these, for instance, his visits to Shantiniketan as its Paridarshak (Visitor) on 23 December, 1952 to deliver the Convocation address, and to the Presidency College, Calcutta, on the following day, as its old alumni, are of particular interest because on both occasions he gave his speech in Bengali with which he was fluent since his university days in Calcutta. Similarly on a tour in Assam he addressed public meetings in Bengali ‘[giving] it turns and twists so as to make it pass for Assamese’ [Handa109] Dr Prasad was, to an extent, a polyglot scholar with his range of interests extending from jurisprudence, of which he was an acknowledged expert, to history, philosophy, science, astrology, literatures in different languages, and so forth. As Handa, his Press Secretary recalls, “Truly he was a lover of languages…When the King of Afghanistn came to India on a State visit, Rajendra Prasad started talking to him in Persian right from the Palam airport.Even his banquet speech in honour of the visiting dignitary he delivered in Persian to Nehru’s great surprise”.[Ib.] In multilinguistic versatility and erudition in classical literature, particularly in Sanskrit, perhaps, none of his political peers could match his scholarly propensities.

In his Shantiniketan speech he once again emphasized the importance of our cultural heritage and old traditions basic to his inherent belief. He said:

…our social ideas are more or less in the melting pot, our ideals and moral standrads are undergoing much change. In this country, we have certain fundamental moral concepts which are more or less self-evident postulates. Now, people are inclined to question them. There are people who not only question them, but who regard them as reactionary and sometimes even condemn them. My plea is that you should recognize what is good in these concepts and try, as far as possible, to remove the defects instead of trying to build a new social fabric about the soundness of which we cannot be sure, because it is after all a matter of experiment. I may be old-fashioned, but I feel that we should rather build upon our old foundations than go along an altogether new path which may be quite good for other countries. [KKD/234]

To plead for continuity with tradition is only to accentuate what is innate in history and culture. Like Gandhi, he was only cautioning the new resurgent generation against the blind pursuit of westernization in the name of modernization. India had its own rich treasure of a heterogeneous cultural heritage which could modernize itself by letting in through its open windows the winds of cultures from all lands blowing in freely. But the cultural roots must not remain unnurtured or be endangered. Modernization should not be equated with a hurried and emulative industrialization that is not in harmony with the basic needs of the common people who constitute the nation’s majority. That is how Gandhi’s ‘Constructive Programme’ became a kind of road-divider between the predominantly pro-industrialization policies of the government and the rural-oriented village-uplift programmes of the followers of Gandhi. In most of his speeches during his presidential years, Dr Prasad kept harping on this basic dichotomy in the national development programmes.

In another equally inspiring Convocation address, this time in Hindi, at Patna University, three months later, Dr Prasad laid stress on ‘The Three Aims of Education’. [CSD16.445-48 Tr] The first aim, he said, was to develop to the full the innate potentialities in an individual which is best done through the inculcation of the legacy of collective wisdom stored in the continuity of cultural heritage. Indeed, ‘it is the collective wisdom of the past generations fructifying the maturation of the succeeding generations which alone can be called good education’. The second aim should be to impart life-serving skills to add practical worth to the acquisition of all knowledge. And the third aim should be to enable the individual to remain usefully connected with their social milieu and discharge their social obligations to the full. The existing system of education has its colonial predilections and its unnatural language bias and hence much of its dead wood needs urgently to be pruned off. The imposition of a foreign language is a major hurdle in the natural growth of the innate potentialities of our youth. ‘This mindless continuation of a worn-out system of values is distracting our youth from their native collective wisdom’ burdening them with a load of irrelevant knowledge which is of little use to them in the ultimate analysis. In a post-independence resurgent India when national reconstruction is our top priority we must opt for a change in this decadent system of education, sooner rather than later. It must be suitably geared for a social transformation. ‘Our nation today is in dire need of more “doers” than “thinkers”’. A balanced approach in our education system is the call of the moment, a system that favours social action and uplift through appropriate skill-development in our youth. Our old generation may have done its bit but now the torch that Mahatma Gandhi had lighted to usher freedom must be carried forward by our new generation of youth to illumine the future of our nation, said Dr Prasad.

Presidency College Centenary
Reforms in the existing education system with its colonial legacies was a recurrent concern of Dr Prasad in most of these speeches he delivered at academic institutions. In June, 1955, when he was invited to inaugurate the Centenary Celebrations of the Presidency College, Calcutta, - his alma mater -  once again ‘he charmed everybody by speaking in Bengali’. As the newspapers reported [CSD17.500], he spoke not as Rashtrapati, but ‘with the humility of an alumnus’ in a ‘language in which he used to converse in those old days of his in the college…as if, in speech and thought, he [was] traversing the horizon of the past’. He paid glowing tributes his alma mater calling it a ‘national monument’ for the glorious contribution it had made through its distinguished alumni to the political evolution of the country during its past hundred years. He struck an emotional note as he continued:

Having spent some of the best and most impressionable years of my life in this institution, I am today full of reminiscences, and I can close my speech only with a grateful acknowledgement that whatever little service it has been my good fortune to render to our people and our country, it has been the result of what I learned and studied, imbibed and assimilated here not only from books but also from the lives of all those with whom I came into contact including not only the masters and professors but also my classmates and contemporaries a great many of whom I am happy to be able to meet and greet today on this joyous occasion….

[This] college has not just passively witnessed all the upheavels followed by cataclysmic changes during the last hundred evenful years. It has not merely seen the drama being enacted on our political stage, but it has assiduously prepared many an actor, done a good deal of useful prompting and contributed substantially to the upkeep of the stage to keep the drama going. There can be no doubt whatsoever that in free India this great institution is destined to play an important role…for the glory of India….[And now] when we are a free people and have our destinies in our own hands, may it not be hoped [that] it will be able to make an equally significant contribution to fashioning and determining the future of this country. [CSD 17.436]

It must have been an emotionally charged event and a newpaper reporter records that many of ‘the aged contemporaries of the President – hoary-headed autograph hunters’ – were gladly obliged by the President who signed their autograph books; of course, only for their grandchildren who were not allowed entry there. [CSD 17.500]

The presidential itineraries would often include visits to Bihar which always remained close to his heart, because of Jeeradei, his home village, and Sadaqat Asharam in Patna, the nodal point in Bihar during the freedom movement. On most occasions when he was in Patna Shivapujan Sahay, his close literary associate and editor, would meet him as the latter’s diary reveals. On 21 April, 1954, as Sahay records in his diary, Dr Prasad was honoured with a literary award for his Atmakatha by Acharya Narendra Dev at the third anniversary function of Bihar Rashtra Bhasha Parishad. On the same occasion, Shivapujan Sahay, too, was given a lifetime award by the Acharya for his lifetime services to Hindi literature. Both Dr Prasad and Sahay donated the amounts, with a matching sum, back to the Parishad and the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan respectively. Dr Prasad’s donation was to be used by the Parishad for creating a welfare fund for indigent Hindi litterateurs. And Sahay’s donation was later used for creating a Hindi literary forum by the Sammelan for holding special lectures by visiting Hindi litterateurs. [SS6.507]

Visit to Bihar Jails
In May, 1955, Dr Prasad was in Patna again and visited this time the Bankipur Central jail. It was almost exactly a decade after his release from the same prison after a three-year incarceration there during the 1942 movement days. During his stay in Patna he also visited the Camp jail there at Phulwari Sharif and the Bhagalpur Central jail. After these visits he prepared a long note for reforms in these jails which reflects the wide range of his human concerns and there also he lays stress on the vocational education of the prisoners, mostly on the lines of the Constructive Programme. His initial observations about the perceptible improvement in prison food, living conditions, hygiene and sanitation at Patna and Bhagalpur jails, however, appear to have been occasioned by a deliberate window-dressing for the President’s visit rather than being nearer to actuality. For instance, he gives a quite favourable picture of the Bankipur jail in his note, not dissimilar to that of the Bhagalpur jail which he visited soon after.

I am no stranger to this [Bankipur] jail [he writes]…I went round the different wards and saw some of the activities in which the prisoners are engaged. Oil crushing, carpet making and soap manufacturing are the main industries here, and in addition, attention is paid to cultivation, gardening, vegetable growing, etc. I saw the prisoners taking a good deal of interest in all these activities…I found the prisoners very enthusiastic in their work…The prisoners live in clean and healthy surroundings. They get good and nutritious food…[At Bhagalpur jail] All the prisoners employed in these industries [making blankets, durries and carpets] looked smart and cheerful….I saw the several sections of the jail, and the efforts that are being made to make the prisoners happy by engaging them in such activities as suit their natural liking and aptitude are indeed praiseworthy…[CSD/288-91]

He also has approving words for the jail staff whom he found ‘able and efficient’, ‘deeply interested in problems connected with jail reforms’, ‘polite and freely mixing’, ‘successful in [their] untiring efforts to better the condition of the prisoners’, and so forth. Fifteen years later, in 1969, however, when this author spent a week in the same Bankipur jail during the University Teachers’ strike, the conditions there, in all respects, were almost as despicable as ever, including the behaviour of the jail staff with general prisoners. All the few latrines were doorless and filthy, the food served to the prisoners cooked in the open was unbelievably stinking, and so on...

But Dr Prasad in his note also makes some worthy suggestions like ‘running the jails on commercial lines’ through production of ‘marketable goods’ that could make the economy of the jails self-supporting. As he says: “I think the jails in the State should be properly classified and the various departments of industry suitably allotted to the dufferent jails… so that the articles required for use in the jails could be produced in the jails themselves.” He also argues for the diversification of the manufacturing potentilaities of the prisoners to include paper-making, dairy farming, making bricks, tiles, pottery, etc. And he lays special emphasis on charkha-spinning in jails as ‘spinning on the charkha helps in the moral uplift of the prisoners, developing qualities of humility and proper judgement, and engenders a spirit of love for the Motherland”. It was a rather idealistic thought for implementation in jails for the long term, but its implications of ‘moral uplift’ and ‘humility’ and discipline seem to retain their abiding relevance. Dwelling further on the idea, he says:

In the non-violent battles fought by Mahatma Gandhi and in enlightening our people on the movement, the charkha has played a vital role. The history of the charkha movement will enable us to acquire humble and thoughtful habits. Side by side, it will help us in concentration of the mind. While spinning, one gets into a prayerful and contemplative mood and it helps one to forget all worldly affairs, thereby contributing to the moral uplift of the prisoners.

In the context of jail reforms these ideas might seem rather far-fetched, but seen from a moral angle, if implemented in poper spirit, they could have worked admirably in infusing a reformative sens of discipline and patriotic feeling among the jail inmates. Dr Prasad’s admonition had the moral strength of his personal example. He was perhaps the lone practitioner of charkha-spinning in his daily life till his last days among all other top Congress leaders including Nehru. Another important suggestion that Dr Prasad made at the end of his note was that ‘different wards in the jails should be named after our national heroes and their portraits and short life histories should be displayed on the prison walls…[along with the] life-sketches of all those leaders who spent theor lives for some time in [these] jails’. He also suggested that prayers should be  conducted in all jails ‘on the lines of the prayers conducted in Gandhiji’s Ashram…[with] due place given to all religions’. Thus we find that there was a remarkable unity of action and thought in Dr Prasad’s personal as well as public life and wherever he went he only preached what he practised in his own life.

Visit to Andamans
It must be noted, however, that during the first term of the presidency the presidential itineraries were limited to visits to only places within the country. Although foreign heads of states paying ceremonial visits to India during this period always extended warm-hearted invitations to the President for return visits. But the Ministry of External Affairs under the PM showed positive disinclination towards presidential visits abroad. The first such visit grudgingly conceded was to Nepal in October, 1956 which was the only foreign visit of the President during his first presidency; a visit still within the subcontinent. However, in March, 1954, the President’s longest post-independence itinerary within India included a visit to the Andaman Nicobar islands of which we have a very detailed diary account in Dr Prasad’s own words.

I landed at Port Blair on the morning of the 10th March [he begins] from INS Delhi after an interesting but uneventful voyage from Calcutta. The voyage was uneventful because the sea was perfectly calm and we had a very quiet journey. It was interesting because the two Destroyers, the Godavari and the Ganga together with the Delhi showed us some of their manoeuvers…We left Port Blair on the night of the 12th after spending two and a half days there. Within this period there were several functions and I had opportunity of meeting various classes and groups of people.[CSD17.307-16]

The visit to the island group lasted a full week including the three-day return sea-voyage from Nancowry reaching Vishakhapatnam on 17 March, 1954. During the four days of his travels among the three main islands - the Andaman, the Nicobar and the Nancowry, north to south in that order – Dr Prasad made a thorough study of the geo-socio-anthropological features of this offshore Indian archipelago which has since become a beautiful tourist destination. Sea-voyages are normally not very comfortable even for healthy people, but luckily for Dr Prasad the sea-gods remained kind and propitious throughout his visit. In a sea-voyage lasting around ten days in all, including his four-day stay on the three islands, to have spent almost a week sailing on the sea must have given Dr Prasad enough quiet leisure to record his detailed observations on these offshore islands which were used during the British rule as ‘kala pani’ (meaning ‘dark waters’ of the the sea) -  or transportation for life of convicts, mostly for political offences. Though in this long diary note Dr Prasad makes no mention of his visit to the infamous Celullar Jail situated in Port Blair.

Dr Prasad begins his observations with details of his encounter with the Aboriginals living in those scattered islands, the chief among them being the Andamanese, the Onges and the Jharawas. Their population, on the whole, is scant and generally hostile to outsiders. A few Andamanese and Onges were first shown to him. The following gives a summary of his observations on these tribals.[Note]

A few Onges were also shown to us. An Italian anthropologist, Dr Capriani, working amongst them for  the Indian Anthropological Dept, had brought these people to me. They are very simple, short statured beings, dark in complexion with very short curly hair that they would shave only with sharpened shells; having short, soft, flabby bodies not of any muscular build. The men and women are almost alike in appearance as men have no moustaches and women have no long hair. Both remain nearly stark naked, the women wearing only a skimpy grass skirt in front, and men wearing only some sort of bark lungottis in their loins. Curiously enough, thery could just understand a little of Hindi. They know nothing of agriculture and eat no cereals, living mostly on fish, crabs, etc they catch from the sea, or pigs and such other animals around them. They don’t know how to make fire and would take great care to keep it burning. They would cook the meat, without salt, on a stone slab with fire burning underneath, putting the meat on leaves and covering it with more leaves and earth to prevent the steam from escaping. They prize a matchbox most and I presented each one of them with packets containing half-yard cloth pieces, some sugar, a matchbox, some tobacco (which they love to smoke) and a small looking glass. Besides the Andamanese and the Onges, there is another tribe known as Jharawas who are very hostile and would shoot with their arrows any outsider on sight. But gradually efforts are being made to connect with them with the lure of presents. Earlier, I learnt, they would shoot any approaching boat, or expecting gifts from the boatmen, would hide themselves, till the gifts were left behind for them with the boats quietly retreating.

The rest of the population is mixed and consists generally of the descendants of the convicts transported there for life since 1858 when the British set up the island as a penal colony, or of migrants from the mainland, like traders, labourers, government servants, etc who are mostly Hindus, but also Muslims and Christians. And they all speak Hindi. The density of such population is the highest within a radius of about 30 to 50 kms of Port Blair. “The rest of [the island] is mostly jungle with very sparse population, apart from the labour employed in working the forests…The island is hilly, with dense forest and hardly any wide valleys, or plateau, which is the feture of most of the Andaman islands.”

Dr Prasad’s observations about the settlement of Bengali immigrants, the land utilization problem, the agricultural problems, the social assimilation of the tribal population, and such other variable features may not have the same statistical validity today after a lapse of more than half a century, yet they present an utterly realistic description both of the demographic and the social aspects of the life on these islands.

When after a couple of days in Port Blair he sailed for Car Nicobar island and reached there after ‘a night’s voyage’, he found the topography similar with the same ‘luxurious green growth’ all around. But the Nicobarese tribals there appeared very different from, and rather socially more advanced than, the Andamanese and Onges tribals. Once again Dr Prasad gives us a very fascinating picture of these Nicobarese tribals who have their own scriptless dialect, though they understand Hindi and their children are now picking up Hindi in their schools.

Unlike the Andamanese and Onges, they are well-built, muscular people who are keen coconut growers which they sell. They also do not gow any cereals but live mostly on various kinds of roots and tubers and some fruits. They grow good quality bananas, keep pigs and catch fish [for food]…They are good wrestlers and boatmen…and row peculiar-shaped canoes and have regular canoe races.

They live in peculiar houses which they build on posts made of stems of trees cut at more than man’s height; the floor is of split bamboo matting and the top is all covered with grass thatch. Most of these houses are more or less circular in shape and one peculiarity is that there is no opening of any kind whatsoever in the roof and there are no side walls. The only opening is through the floor through which I was told they get enough ventilation. This small opening is just wide enough to have a bamboo ladder put through on which they climb, and once they are all in the house, the ladder is lifted up and there is no connection with the ground except the posts on which the construction is built. Men and women all sleep together, there being no compartments. Formerly they were not using any clothes at all but used to wrap round their waist coconut leaves sewn together…

The next stop was the Nancowry island. Nancowry is the southernmost of this Anadaman archipelago – about 150 kms south of Car Nicobar island – where Dr Prasad arrived on 14th morning. His return voyage to Vishakhapatnam was to start from Nancowry in the afternoon. Nancowry island, he writes, is populated by the same Nicobarese tribe, though they are not Christians, and are rather more primitive in their living. The island, unlike Car Nicobar’s alluvial sandy plains, is hilly like the Andamans. A striking feature in the entire Andaman archipelago,  however, as Dr Prasad remarks,  is the low incidence of crime or law and order problems. All forests there all over are full of valuable timber, with a large variety of both hard and soft timber that is in great demand both in India and abroad. For Dr Prasad, it was fascinating to see a dedicated team of about 80 elephants, maintained by the Forest Dept, lifting, loading and moving huge timber logs to the large mill near the shore where they were to be processed before being exported. But what truly impressed Dr Prasad was that most of the native Indians there, ‘descended from persons who were once convicts sentenced to transportation for life…take pride in saying that they are descendants of those who were sent there after the events of 1857 in India…and even those who have no such geneology take pride in it as descendants of old patriots’.

Visit to Lakshadweep islands
Two years later, in February, 1956, Dr Prasad visited the Lakshadweep islands, around 200 kms off the Kerala coast, on the south-western side of India. The archipelago consists of two groups of small islands, the northern group being the Amindivi islands and the southern group being the Laccadive islands. Both groups, since the 1956 reorganisation of states, fall under the administrative unit of a Union Territory of Lakshadweep, the smallest in the Indian Union. Only  a quarter of these tiny islands (the total surface area being merely 32 sq. kms)  are inhabitated by a majority of Muslim population, mostly migrants from the Malabar coast speaking Malayalam. Dr Prasad’s objective in visiting these far-flung offshore Indian archipelago islands, both in the east and the west, during the first term of his presidency, must have been to acquaint himself with the life of the Indian nationals living a somewhat segregated existence in these distant marine habitations cut-off, by and large, from the mainland. In a sense, before he could make visits to foreign countries, Dr Prasad wanted to connect with the people living in near and far places inland and off-shore. Even in Amindive and Laccadive islands the purpose of his visit was to acquaint himself in depth with the problems of the people living on those far-off islands, as is clear from his speeches made on 7 and 8 February in Androth and Amini [CSD18.332-35] In those days the main problem was of communication and connectivity with the mainland which has since been taken care of. Both the Andaman and the Lakshadweep archipelago islands have now beome important tourist destinations. But it must have been the first ever event, and perhaps the last so far, that an Indian head of state had visited these distant islands to connect with the segregated populations there – a ‘mini-India’ in its own way.

(C) Dr BSM Murty

Photos: Courtesy Google Images

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