On March 26, Narendra Modi claimed in a blog post that Gandhian socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia would have been proud of the BJP government. Perhaps the prime minister is not aware that Lohia was ferociously anti-fascist, anti-imperialist and anti-hierarchy. He also rejected authoritarianism in all its forms.

Lohia was a PhD student in Berlin between the crucial years of 1931 and 1933 that saw the rise of fascism in Germany.

When he returned to India, the first article he wrote was titled “Hitlerism”.

In the article, published in The Hindu on March 25, 1933, he expressed his concern about how “personal assaults by the Storm Troopers on their adversaries” had decimated the Opposition. The Sturmabteilung, also referred to as stormtroopers, was a paramilitary group of the Nazi Party that played an important role in Hitler’s rise to power.

The Reichstag fire

Lohia defended his thesis on February 25, 1933, three days after Hermann Goering, then a minister without a portfolio in Hitler’s cabinet, set up an auxiliary police force staffed with stormtroopers to attack members of other parties, dissidents, communists, feminists and, of course, Jews and Romas. Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany for almost two months at that time.

On February 27, 1933, the German Parliament building or Reichstag went up in flames after an arson attack suspected to have been carried out by Hitler’s stormtroopers. The next day, Hitler used the fire to consolidate his power through an emergency decree that said:

“Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.”

Lohia, then 23 years old, was witness to the first big Nazi roundup that followed. Truckloads of stormtroopers roared through the streets of Germany, bursting in on the hangouts of liberals, socialists and communists, barging into private homes. Thousands of communists, social democrats, feminists, trade unionists and liberals were taken into what was described as “protective custody”, only to be tortured.

Lessons from Germany

During his three years in Germany, Lohia saw how Hitler won over big business and exploited the political haggling between the communists, socialists and conservatives to gain power.

German Chancellor Heinrich Bruening, who was seeking an end to war reparations, had proposed that the huge estates of bankrupt aristocrats be divided up and given to peasants. He issued a decree banning the SA (Sturmabteilung) and SS (Schutzstaffel) all across Germany in April, 1932. The Schutzstaffel, another paramilitary squad, were originally Hitler’s bodyguards but later became the elite guard of the Reich.

Within a month, under pressure from business families and warring political parties, Bruening was removed from office by President Paul von Hindenberg. By June 15, the ban on the SA and SS was lifted.

Lohia wrote in The Hindu:

“Financial help from capital and heavy industry and Herr Thyssen and Hugenberg controlling iron and coal industries of Germany being in active sympathy with Nazis, has been of the greatest assistance to the [Nazi] party…For though the National Socialist programme should have Socialism in it, on the basis of its name, it contains instead the assurance that private property shall exist under Nazi regime…”

Perhaps, Lohia had an inkling of what was to come as he decided to leave Germany a few weeks after passing his PhD, without waiting to pick up the actual degree itself.

He wrote:

“It was one of my most common experiences that otherwise educated and cultured German students expressed their glee even upon personal assaults by the Storm Troopers on their adversaries”.

Lohia must have witnessed with pain, how one of his favourite professors, Hermann Oncken, “to whom many like me of the Berlin university owe the taste for history”, was being hounded by his pro-Nazi students in collaboration with the new administration.

Walter Frank, one of Oncken’s former students, an unscrupulous Nazi upstart, accused his old teacher of distortion in an article. This gave the Nazis the pretext to suddenly retire the great scholar from his professorship in 1935.

Lohia, however, took forward the teachings of the famous “socialist of the classroom”. Lohia was sympathetic to his teacher’s affinity to the founder of German Social Democracy, Ferdinand Lassalle, whose political philosophy, based on Hegel’s teachings, was to have a universal outlook and to bridge the abyss between the state and the working class.

Understanding fascism

Lohia had gained firsthand insights into the link between anti-rational mysticism and fascism in Europe during his time in Germany.

One of Lohia’s professors, the German philosopher, Max Dessoir, was an amateur magician and parapsychologist quoted by the likes of Freud. His lectures provided students like Lohia insights into how the fascists used magic and irrational mysticism to influence the sub-conscious memory.

Dessoir’s article, Psychology of the Art of Conjuring, was banned by the Nazis. Dessoir was also forbidden from teaching. The excuse was that he was “quarter-Jewish”.

Lohia was probably repulsed by the changing atmosphere in the university and the insults to his professors when he decided to leave Germany just a few weeks after passing his PhD. He did not even wait to pick up the actual degree itself.

On his return to India, went to work for the Indian National Congress in Allahabad at Jawaharlal Nehru’s invitation, and promptly joined the party’s socialist caucus.

Lohia, Nehru and all the socialist leaders were both opposed to the anti-rational mysticism of some of the members of the Indian National Congress. Both had a deep understanding of fascism and aversion to it.

Lohia stayed in Anand Bhawan, Nehru’s home in Allahabad, for the next few years. During that time, he edited the party’s monthly paper, the Inquilab, and contributed several articles to the magazine, Congress Socialist.

Three years on, in 1936, a 46-year-old Nehru asked Lohia, who was then 26 years old, to start the foreign cell of the Congress. The first pamphlet that Lohia wrote as secretary of the party’s foreign department was titled, The Struggle for Civil Liberties, with a foreword by Nehru. Both leaders must have surely discussed the importance of laying out this treatise at a time when the party was being built. By then, Nehru had already been jailed by the British eight times for a cumulative total of more than six years. Lohia was yet to begin his jail terms.

Lohia on civil liberties

Modi has obviously not read this pamphlet in which Lohia wrote: “The persecution of racial minorities is obviously a reflection of unequal laws, as also unequal dispensation of justice and is, therefore, an attack on the civil liberties of a section of citizens.”

Or when he explained that,

“On the ruins of the Bastille [the notorious French prison] was reared the imposing structure of civil liberties…Bastilles, of one type or the other, had been built to frighten people into submission and acceptance of conditions as they obtained. When, finally the peoples had gathered sufficient strength to smash the state and its economic and social laws, they overthrew the Bastilles...To restrict, therefore, the factual authority of the State, all manners of trenches should be dug and citadels fortified in defence of people’s freedom. The agitation for civil liberties is such a trench and a citadel”.

Modi and his cohort have certainly not noticed Lohia’s views on lynching in the same pamphlet. He wrote:

“In Alabama, the Courts and the State administration are ridden by race-hatred and the fiendish desire legally or illegally to lynch Negroes. The Negroes are underprivileged and live under the dictatorial rule of their economic masters, the former slave-owners of the South.”

In 1951, on a tour of the American South, Lohia convinced officials of the Highlander Folk School, the Tennessee retreat where many civil rights activists learned to confront oppression, to include civil disobedience in the curriculum.

Four years after Lohia’s visit, Rosa Parks, a seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, who attended the Highlander course, engaged in her own Gandhian act of civil disobedience by refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger.

Parks’ single act of defiance launched movements across America to end public segregation and led to the 381-day long Montgomery bus boycott, during which African Americans refused to travel on the city’s buses to protest against segregated seating. The bus boycott brought Gandhian civil disobedience to the attention of Martin Luther King Jr.

American attorney and civil rights activist Harris Wofford, who was a friend of Lohia, later said:

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about causal chains. If I hadn’t taken Ram Manohar Lohia to Highlander, there wouldn’t have been a Rosa Parks who went to jail; there wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King to put in jail; and there wouldn’t have been a phone call to Coretta [Scott King] for [John F] Kennedy to make. If you remove just one link from the chain, even one that seems insignificant, you can change the whole course of history.”

Modi either fails to understand Lohia foundationally, or, as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is wont to do, is deliberately appropriating leaders who have played a significant role in building India, since the RSS has a paucity of such leaders.

Lohia died in 1967 at the age of 57. He had devoted his short life to laying the foundation of democratic socialist politics. His submission of a no-confidence vote against his erstwhile mentor, Nehru, in 1963, stemmed from his commitment to establishing a robust Opposition, a cornerstone for any democracy.

His time in Germany had taught him a valuable lesson – opposition was necessary to preserve India’s nascent democracy so that it would not suffer the same fate as Germany’s Weimar Republic.

In The Hindu article, he concluded:

“The process of complete organisational crippling of the Opposition in Germany can be said to be almost complete now. With the cleansing of the State machinery of all non-national elements and the suppression of all Communists and Republican associations…and, in view of the Opposition press being muzzled or almost non-existent, it is legitimate to conclude that Hitler has succeeded in depriving the Opposition of even the most elementary organisational basis”.

To Lohia, Amit Shah’s declaration that India would be Opposition-free by 2050 would have sounded very much like Adolf Hitler’s statement in 1934: “At the risk of appearing to talk nonsense I tell you that the [Hitler’s] National Socialist Movement will go on for 1,000 years!”

Nehru and Lohia

Both Nehru and Lohia would have united in their struggle against the greater threat: fascism. They were essentially democratic and socialists, influenced deeply by Gandhi, and both would have united against any attempt to muzzle Opposition politics, free press and dissent. The freedom they fought for was equally precious to both of them.

Both were atheists, both represented different strands of Gandhian socialist thought, both opposed fascism and both tried to ensure that the Congress or Opposition parties would not succumb to anti-rational mysticism, but become a force for modern scientific democracy.

When Lohia was released from Lahore prison on April 11, 1946, after spending about two years in jail, Nehru wrote him a letter that spoke volumes about the depth of affection and understanding he had for his erstwhile mentee:

“…I have been wondering how you must look now and how you must feel. After all, the inner changes are more important than external ones. I myself have a continuous sensation of changing. But it is really for others to judge what these changes are, good or bad. I hoped that you might come here on your release, but of course you had to go to Calcutta…Are you still your old self, bright and intelligent and a little erratic and vagrant? Has life hardened you? But these are question that you cannot answer. And I shall have to meet you to find out. I hope when we meet you will not look at me as if through a shell…”

Lohia, in turn, never forgot the love and care he got from Nehru.

Socialist leader Krishnanth said that when Lohia’s health started failing, he told some of his friends that of all places, “at Nehru Pandit’s house I will get the best care.”

The late Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy quoted Lohia as saying, “Once Nehru’s rule is stopped, I will have many nice things to speak about Nehru.”

The Opposition politics that Lohia laid the foundation for survives till this day and has kept Indian democratic politics alive and inclusive, just as the Congress that Nehru created continues to strive to cobble together coalitions to preserve India’s democracy.

Nehru and Lohia’s differences were inside the framework of democratic Gandhi socialism. Modi is not even in the framework.

Nehru and Lohia perhaps understood one another more than their political heirs understand them.

Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner and visiting professor at New York University. Her twitter handle is @ruchiragupt.