By G. L. Batra, ST Guest Columnist, Writer & formerly Addl. Secretary, Indian Parliament and Chairman, Public Service Commission of the Indian State of Haryana
Dr. Rajendra Prasad, or Rajen Babu, as he was known, is remembered with respect and reverence as one of the architects and guiding lights of modern India. A renowned lawyer and jurist, a dedicated freedom fighter and social worker, competent administrator and eloquent speaker and Member of Parliament, Dr. Prasad served the nation in several capacities throughout his life. He graced the highest Constitutional office of our country for two consecutive terms and left his indelible footprints in the sands of India’s history.
Rajen Babu started his career as a lawyer in Calcutta and with his integrity of character, deep knowledge, incisive intellect and eloquence, soon established a successful practice. In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi organized a satyagraha at Champaran to protest the exploitation of farmers there. Rajen Babu participated in the satyagraha and came under the spell of Gandhiji’s political thought and charisma, changing the entire course of his life. After the imposition of the despotic Rowlatt Act in 1918 and the horrific Jallianwalla Baug massacre of 1919, Gandhiji launched the Non-Cooperation movement, and Rajen Babu actively and whole-heartedly supported it, giving up his lucrative law practice to plunge full-time into the national movement. Rajen Babu also participated in the flag satyagraha at Nagpur, and came into contact with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, starting a close association which lasted a lifetime. In 1930, Dr. Prasad took part in the salt satyagraha, and suffered imprisonment. He was prematurely released by the government because his services were needed to organize relief work for the victims of an earthquake which had rocked Bihar. Rajen Babu organised a dedicated team of volunteers and worked tirelessly at this task and was able to mobilize an astounding sum of Rs. 38 lakh, which went a long way in assuaging the misery of the hapless victims of the quake. He was also a leading activist in the Quit India movement, and suffered imprisonment again for a long period of three years.
Dr. Prasad had joined the Indian National Congress in 1911 itself and went on to serve the organization in various capacities for the next forty years of his life. He participated with full dedication in its activities and contributed in a large measure in mobilizing the populace of his home state, Bihar in the movement for independence. In 1937, the Congress formed ministries in the provincial legislatures, and Rajen Babu, along with Sardar Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad gave valuable guidance through the Parliamentary Board of which they were members. He was elected President of the Congress for the first time in 1935 as a recognition of his yeoman’s services rendered for the relief and rehabilitation of the earthquake victims in Bihar. Dr. Prasad led the Congress again in 1939 and 1947 and provided statesmanlike leadership to the organization.
Rajen Babu once again rose to the occasion to serve the motherland, in the capacity of Minister for Food and Agriculture in the interim government formed under the premiership of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1946.
In 1946, the historic Constituent Assembly was formed to draft the Constitution of a free India and Rajen Babu was elected to this august body from Bihar. His immense contributions to the freedom struggle were recognized when he was elected unopposed as its President. On this momentous occasion, several prominent leaders paid their respectful obeisance to this great man. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan observed[i], “In Dr. Rajendra Prasad, we have one who embodies the spirit of gentleness. He is the soul of goodness; he has great patience and courage, he has suffered…..Rajendra Prasad is the suffering servant of India, of the Congress who incarnates the spirit for which the country stands. I only hope that this spirit of amity, concord and harmony which has come down to us from the image of Siva in the Indus civilization down to Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Rajendra Prasad will inspire our efforts.”
Dr. Sarojini Naidu too paid high compliments to Dr. Prasad, and said[ii], “….In this House, where everyone had said with conviction that he would be the guardian and father of the House, I conceive him not as one with the flaming sword but an angel with the lily which wins victories over the hearts of men because in him there is essential sweetness, that is part of his experience. There is an essential clarity of vision, creative imagination and creative faith that brings him very near the feet of Lord Buddha himself.”
Dr. Rajendra Prasad guided, controlled and regulated the conduct of proceedings of the Assembly with impartiality, wisdom, tact, grace and skill, and was universally appreciated for ensuring that the debates and discussions remained to a large measure, frank, free and full.
On 24th January 1950, he was unanimously elected the provisional President of India. Subsequently, when the first elections were held according to the principles of adult franchise, Dr. Prasad was elected the first President of the Republic of India, according to the provisions of the Constitution. He was re-elected for a second term in 1957. The pomp and splendour of the highest office of the land did not have any effect on the simplicity and nobility of Dr. Prasad, and he continued to live a humble life, spinning the charkha daily. During his term, Dr. Prasad along with Pandit Nehru, established lasting traditions and precedents as to the relation between the offices of the President and Prime Minister, which to this day continue, thus creating a healthy and harmonious relationship between the Head of State and the Head of Government. Rajen Babu’s integrity and purity of character, humility and humaneness endeared him to all, and it can truly be said that he had not one enemy in the world.
Dr. Prasad relinquished office in 1962 and spent the remainder of his life at Sadaquat Ashram in Patna, in peaceful and quiet surroundings. In 1963, he passed away, leaving behind a legacy of high thoughts and ideals, which continue to inspire all Indians. Dr. Rajendra Prasad was honoured with the Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest civilian honour in the same year, as a mark of the nation’s gratitude and reverence.
[i] Constituent Assembly Debates – Official Reports, Vol. I, pp 36-37, Lok Sabha Secretariat, 2nd Reprint 1989
[ii] Ibid Vol I, pp 47-48