Jayaprakash’s speech had a visceral impact on Indira. Their relationship was going through one of its lowest ebbs, caught in a spiral of outrage, distrust and recrimination. It started with Indira’s address at a public meeting in Bhubaneswar on 1 April, where she accused her detractors of living on the largesse of corrupt people.
Her provocative remark, clearly alluding to Jayaprakash, was not a silly gaffe that could be ignored. In a statement issued two days later, Jayaprakash accused her of descending to the lowest depths. Realising that she had made a mistake, Indira tried to make amends.
She wrote, “Many friends are distressed that there should be any misunderstanding between us. I have had the privilege of your friendship for many years. The mutual regard that existed between my father and you is well known as is my mother’s affection for Prabhavatiji. Even the highest personal regard and affection need not preclude an honest difference in political or philosophical outlook. You have not seen eye to eye with my father, nor now with me. We have criticised each other, but I hope we have done it without personal bitterness or questioning of each other’s motives. I have consistently tried not to be confined by my office, but to reach out for ideas, for understanding and for cooperation in the task of solving problems. I shall continue to value your sympathy.”
Indira’s attempt to bridge the chasm did not succeed. Jayaprakash’s letters to her took on a brusque, hostile tone. The form of address also changed from Indu to a formal Indiraji. His public address of 5 June further distanced them.
In response, Indira wrote, “You are angry that people from the prime minister and Shri Dikshit downwards ‘have the arrogance to give lessons in democracy to Jayaprakash Narayan’. Would you not agree that democracy gives us the right to think and talk about it, as it does to anybody else, irrespective of position or background? May I also, in all humility, put to you that it is possible that others, who may not be your followers, are equally concerned about the country, about the people’s welfare, and about the need to cleanse public life of weakness and corruption. Are you sure that all the people who today follow you and support your movement are different in their background and intentions from the people, who, according to you, have found shelter behind government?”
Jayaprakash chose to ignore the letter.
From 7 June, a non-violent satyagraha was launched. Jayaprakash called for the closure of all colleges and universities for a year. He also encouraged no-tax and related campaigns to paralyse the government. In the following days, several persons were arrested while picketing and offering dharna before the assembly gates.
Even when the assembly session concluded on 13 July there was no let-up in the demands and agitations for its dissolution. In a spirit of defiance, Jayaprakash exhorted police personnel to be guided by their conscience rather than orders from seniors when resorting to lathi charge or firing.
Jayaprakash’s call for boycott of classes and exams elicited a mixed response. Several universities and colleges remained paralysed for want of students, but the issue of boycott played on the vulnerabilities of not only the students but also their parents.
When the colleges reopened on 18 July, after an inordinately long closure of four months, less than 10 per cent students abstained from exams. There were instances of crude bombs being hurled at exam centres in Gaya and other towns, and disturbing reports of stoning and other forms of coercive violence against examinees in a few other districts.
By the end of the year, when students began returning to their classes, Jayaprakash considerably scaled down his expectations. He gave them the option of devoting a year to the movement or even a day in a week. The first phase of the agitation concluded with the end of satyagraha before the assembly in the third week of July.
The second and more intense phase began on 1 August, with the commencement of no-tax campaigns. At a time of severe famine-like conditions, farmers were advised to withhold the state levy on foodgrains meant for the public distribution system. Wine and country liquor shops were picketed. There was complete mayhem.
The only exception made was for departments like post and telegraph, hospitals, courts, railways, banks and ration shops. Jayaprakash directed students to hold ten to fifteen meetings in each assembly constituency to turn public opinion against non-performing MLAs. Sons and daughters of corrupt officials, hoarders and traders were told to go on twelve-hour fasts in their own homes.
Addressing a public meeting in Jamshedpur, Jayaprakash once again urged the police to disobey orders that their conscience told them were improper. He also warned, “For the present the call is on Gandhian lines and should not be mistaken for a call for rebellion. But a stage will come, when I will call for total rebellion.”
By October, a certain fatigue seemed to have set in, even as there were increased incidences of violence and coercion in implementing the civil disobedience programme. Largely restricted to urban areas, the protests were failing to draw in poor peasants, agricultural workers and casual labourers. Touring Bihar, Nayantara Sehgal decried the gender imbalance in participation.
To energise the movement and expand its base, Jayaprakash announced a new plan of action, which included intensification of struggle from 2 October. A three-day bandh was organised between 3 and 5 October. Leading the bandh, Jayaprakash marched through the streets of the state capital on 3 October with his followers. People lined the streets to support him. He ended his march at the gate of the secretariat and sat in dharna, surrounded by supporters, curious onlookers, the media and sections of the bureaucracy.
Following the success of the bandh, Jayaprakash posed another direct challenge to state power. Students and Jana Sangharsh Samiti (People’s Struggle Committee) volunteers were directed to move in strength to block, subdivision and district offices to paralyse their work and to set up parallel, revolutionary people’s governments, or Janata Sarkars.
Patterned on the Russian democratic workers councils (soviets), these micro-organs of people’s power were expected to adjudicate disputes, ensure the sale of essential commodities at fair prices, organise redistribution of ceiling-surplus land amongst the landless, prevent black market activities and hoarding, and fight against caste oppression. They were also expected to gradually bring about a shift in people’s consciousness and make them reject untouchability, casteism and its symbols like the donning of the sacred thread by upper castes, patriarchy and its manifestation in early marriage and dowry.
Even though Jayaprakash repeatedly said that the movement was unconstitutional but democratic and non-violent, the agitations were not entirely free of coercive violence. Shopkeepers were forced to pull down their shutters. Trains and buses were arbitrarily stopped. At Bhabua, Sasaram, Samastipur, Sitamarhi, Muzaffarpur and Danapur stations, young children blocked railway tracks. The Bihar home secretary reported twenty cases of railway sabotage, tampering with tracks and intimidation of railway workers.
The police retaliated with ruthless brutality. Hundreds of students were beaten up and arrested. There were several women and girls among those arrested. They were incarcerated in the jails of Hazaribagh, Bhagalpur, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Samastipur, Arrah, Bankipur and Patna. Between 2 and 5 October, the police opened fire at many places resulting in a number of deaths. In a single incident in Patna City, twenty-two rounds were fired and unofficial sources reported seventy-five deaths.
Excerpted with permission from The Dream of Revolution: A Biography of Jayprakash Narayan, Bimal Prasad and Sujata Prasad, Penguin Books India.
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