Face to face with JP's legacy

I passed Mushari and stopped to see the small Public Works Department one-room set with a kitchen in the balcony that Jayaprakash Narayan and his wife Prabhavati ji occupied in 1970-71.

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  • Published 8.07.16

I passed Mushari and stopped to see the small Public Works Department one-room set with a kitchen in the balcony that Jayaprakash Narayan and his wife Prabhavati ji occupied in 1970-71.

Naxalites in Muzzafarpur had served death threats to two prominent Sarvodaya workers. A shocked JP had rushed to Mushari. He had attempted, with missionary zeal, to win over the Naxalites to peaceful ways of protest. He held a meeting with Naxalite leaders and in a passionate plea asked them to give him wholehearted support for five years.

"If during this period I am unable to convince you of the superiority of non-violent action, I will have no moral authority to restrain you from going your own way."

He visited them in jails in Jamshedpur and Calcutta and pressed the West Bengal and Bihar governments to treat the Naxalites more humanely.

JP's pamphlet Face to Face is worth reading. It is the last political dialogue that any mainstream leader has had with Naxalites in India.

"It is not the so-called Naxalites who have fathered this violence, but they who have persistently defied and defeated the reform laws... politicians, administrators, landowners, or money-lenders. The big farmers who cheated the ceiling law through benami... the Gentlemen who grabbed lands and village commons, the landlords who defied the rights of the sharecroppers and evicted them... those who underpaid the labourers... so called upper-caste men who looked down on their Harijan brethren... it is they who are responsible for the accumulated sense of injustice, grievance and hurt among the poor and downtrodden that is now seeking its outlet through violence." JP desperately wanted the Gandhian non-violent approach to succeed. He had disassociated himself from socialism and party politics and joined Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan and Gramdan movements, i.e. voluntary donation of land, and then whole villages, to the landless. He could not understand how Naxalites had to fight for land in a district where Bhave's Sarvodayis had facilitated the transfer of land. He was even more shocked that the Naxalites saw some Sarvodayis as exploiters. It had all gone horribly wrong, he soon discovered. Most of the Gramdan pledges were bogus. "So far we have not come across a single village where we have found the two requirements of 75 per cent of the population and 51 per cent of the land to have been fulfilled."

JP parted with Vinoba Bhave after stating at their Bhopal conference that "the decision to pursue sulabh gramdan was a mistake".

Many believe that his period in Mushari and his interaction with the Naxalites sowed the seeds for his call for Total Revolution and return to mainstream politics, combined with the growing socialist movements against inflation, corruption and authoritarianism.

On April 8, 1974, aged 72, he led a silent procession at Patna. The procession was lathi charged. On June 5, 1974, JP addressed a large crowd at Gandhi Maidan in Patna. He declared: "This is a revolution, friends! We are not here merely to see the Vidhan Sabha dissolved. That is only one milestone on our journey. But we have a long way to go... After 27 years of freedom, people of this country are wracked by hunger, rising prices, corruption... oppressed by every kind of injustice... it is a Total Revolution we want, nothing less!"

It gradually developed into a popular people's movement known as the Bihar Movement leading to the overthrow of Indira Gandhi and the establishment of the first non-Congress government. This in turn paved the way for the stronger regional politics we see today. And the subsequent appointment of the Mandal Commission that led to representation of OBCs and Dalits in more jobs and educational institutions, changing the face of India forever.

One Naxalite leader who had some influence on JP was Satya Narain Sinha. They used to meet surreptitiously during the '70-71 period at the Mahila Charkha Samiti at Kadamkuan in Patna. JP used to live there with his close friend and nationalist Ganga Sharan Sinha. Prabhavatiji ran the Samiti.

I decided to drive there. No Bihar Safarnama could be complete without a visit to this house. As a child my father used to bring me here. JP would scribble poems on my book, including Dinkar's Sampoorna Kranti Nara Hai, Bhavi Itihas Tumhara Hai.

He would ask my father about every single member in our family, while I would run off to the balcony outside. I wish I had paid more attention to their conversations.

I try to pick up fragments of memories in the room with JP's bed, his chair with long arms, the particular shade of the yellow that the walls used to be painted with. It is still the same in its simplicity but better maintained. The yellow paint is fresh, the grass in the courtyard is cut, the tree is pruned, the furniture polished. The staff are polite and friendly. I wander down to the Mahila Charkha Samiti to buy the home-made thekua and honey, and ask the woman who adds my bill without a calculator if they still weave. "Only on special occasions to mark special days," she answers.

I see about 20 women using the woman-only Prabhavati Mahila Pustakalya. A smiling young librarian, Seema Kumari, tells me that the maximum number of books issued are for competitive exams. Modern young women in Patna are studying, sitting for exams, and taking jobs in the public space. JP's Total Revolution is conceptual but Prabhavitji's humble Mahila Charkha Samiti is practical. It will sow the seed of the most fundamental change - equality and equity at home or nar-nari samta that JP's one time friend Dr Ram Manohar Lohia used to talk about.

I leave thinking that movements connect unlikely ideas and people, that movements move and the seeds of change they sow grow beyond a lifetime.


Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide.