By Karmanye Thadani:
With the passing away of Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal of Netaji’s Indian National Army (INA), who had been involved in active politics after independence as a member of the CPI-M, nearly an entire generation of genuinely ideologically committed politicians from the days of the freedom struggle has been lost. If we were to think of inspiring figures in independent India from our political class, other than Nehru, Patel, Maulana Azad, Shastri, Indira Gandhi (in spite of her subversion of civil liberties during the emergency and excessively leftist economics) and Jaiprakash Narayan, a few names that would come to my mind would be these-
Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer: One of the stalwarts of the Indian judiciary, relatively fewer people know that he was formerly a politician. He was a member of the CPI-M and had an illustrious political career as Minister of Law, Power, Prisons, Irrigation and Social Welfare in Kerala, having done commendable work in all these sectors. His most remarkable legacy is the Kerala Land Reforms Act that radically transformed the lives of landless farmers. Strongly committed to secularism and a big fan of Islamic banking but strongly in favour of a modernist reinterpretation of Islamic law, he later became a judge and went on to make it to the Supreme Court and gave some of the most landmark judgments driven by human rights jurisprudence. It is widely believed that he deserved to become the Chief Justice. A man of great integrity, he looks upon Gandhiji as a role model.
Rafiq Zakaria: A great scholar of Islam and an equally strong Indian nationalist, the late father of the well-known US media personality Fareed Zakaria remains one of the foremost public intellectuals in the history of independent India. His book The Man Who Divided India, exposing Jinnah’s devious agenda and Indian Muslims: Where Have They Gone Wrong?, exploring the issue of Muslim communalism and sexism remain classics. He also condemned Hindu communalism in no uncertain terms.
Zakaria had a long political career as a Congressman. He is known for the construction of irrigation and power schemes in Maharashtra in the 1970s and setting up educational institutions, including a women’s college of arts and sciences and the Indian Institute of Hotel Management, which is now known as the Institute of Hotel Management, Aurangabad (IHM-A).
Gopinath Bordoloi: A great Indian nationalist from Assam who struggled against colonial rule and who was very close to Gandhiji, Bordoloi ensured that Assam didn’t become a part of a Muslim-majority Cabinet Mission grouping, preventing it from becoming a part of Pakistan. As the first Chief Minister of Assam, he did commendable work for the Hindu refugees coming from East Pakistan. He gave great premium on education and was instrumental in establishing the Guwahati University, the Assam Medical College and the Assam Veterinary College. Strongly tolerant by outlook, he wrote a book on Prophet Muhammad.
Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal: A doctor by qualification, she commanded the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the women’s regiment of Netaji’s INA, among the first armies in modern world history to have women as combatants and the army of independent India has only very recently inducted women as combatants. She became a member of the CPI-M after independence and did immense medical relief work for the refugees flooding in from East Pakistan as well as for the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Strongly committed to religious tolerance, she also came out in the open during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots appealing for peace and very strongly condemned the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. She blamed the saffron brigade for turning the tide of Kashmiri Muslims from Indian nationalism to separatism. She contested for the seat of President against Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, and during that contest, she did make some distasteful remarks about the much loved nuclear scientist, calling him an RSS stooge, which is rather unfortunate. However, on the whole, she represents a brave modern Indian woman ready to take on all challenges.
Shyama Prasad Mookerjee: A Hindu Mahasabha leader who was not an extremist, he wanted to broaden the base of the party to include people of diverse faiths and was perhaps, therefore, invited by Nehru to join the first cabinet of free India. Mookerjee refused to accept Jinnah’s two-nation theory. He was a bitter critic of what he considered Muslim appeasement and formed the Bhartiya Jan Sangh, which was an economic right-wing party, differing with the RSS in this respect of economic ideology, though unlike C. Rajagopalachari’s also economic right-wing Swatantra Party, the Jan Sangh can certainly not be said to have been free from anti-Muslim prejudice.
Mookerjee went on a fast unto death to undo the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. While I do not support this cause personally, his commitment to a cause he believed in is admirable. Dr. Mookerjee was also supported by a sizable number of strongly pro-India Kashmiri Muslims, who didn’t support Sheikh Abdullah vacillating from supporting India to supporting Pakistan. Dr. Mookerjee passed away in Kashmir under mysterious circumstances when he was hospitalized, owing to his deteriorating health, and no post-mortem was conducted after his demise, which will be something that Nehru will always be held accountable for in the pages of history. Today, most of our leaders like Baba Ramdev and Arvind Kejriwal talk of fasting unto death but end up withdrawing their fasts at some flimsy pretext. Not so for a man like Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. His determination can serve as a source of inspiration for one and all.