Endless inspiration

Published : Jan 28, 2011 00:00 IST

L.C. Jain. He was pre-eminently a Gandhian. - K. GOPINATHAN

L.C. Jain. He was pre-eminently a Gandhian. - K. GOPINATHAN

L.C. Jain continued to fight for change in every way he could and remained optimistic, despite seemingly unsurmountable obstacles.

L.C. JAIN was a remarkable man who lived through remarkable times. And he was continuously, productively engaged with those times in so many diverse ways that an account of his extraordinarily rich life also necessarily becomes a commentary on the changing political economy of Indian development over the past seven decades. Civil Disobedience: Two freedom struggles, one life (Book Review Literary Trust, New Delhi, 2010), a fascinating and engaging book that has been put together by his son Sreenivasan Jain on the basis of interviews captures much of the essence of the man: self-effacing and humorous, but with a razor-sharp intellect, always active and energetic irrespective of any personal difficulties and broader external constraints.

To many of my generation, Lakshmi Jain was pre-eminently a Gandhian, not only in his convictions but also in his personality by sustained gentleness and humility. Yet the book details, in a matter-of-fact manner, his youthful activities as messenger and weapon carrier for the bomb-throwing activists fighting for independence in the early 1940s. The shift in approach came later, just after Independence.

There is a fascinating description of the moment of epiphany when L.C. Jain discovered Gandhi in the flames of the Hudson Lines segment of Kingsway Camp refugee camp, where he had been sent as a young volunteer to take charge and quell the communal violence that was flaring up. Other volunteers suggested calling the police to quell the rock-throwing protesters. At that point, something came over me. I asked, If Gandhiji comes to know we called the police to a refugee camp, what will he say? ... I won't call the police.' It was a sudden flash; without warning. Up until then, whether in the activities of 1942 underground, or in the Changer's Club discussion, Gandhi was neither on any of my agendas nor was he a mentor figure. But suddenly he became the yardstick (pages 68-69).

That particular episode resulted in success, as violence was averted and the tensions eventually subsided. And so Gandhi became established as a frame of reference for L.C. Jain. But not in an uncritical or unreflective way: L.C. Jain's own attitude to the problems of development took something from Gandhi but also much from socialist perspectives on building workers' cooperatives as well as the complex realities of a rapidly changing India that he was constantly forced to confront.

L.C. Jain was, most fundamentally, a doer. While he certainly did analyse and theorise about economic and social processes, the point with him was always much more about changing reality. That is why the second battle for freedom that Gandhi also sought, which would deal with inequality, deprivation, poverty, social justice (page 150) was so much a part of his life and also permeates the book. And in a life replete with multifarious activity it is evident that this was the underlying motif. Even in the charming epilogue that describes the illicit courtship of and thirty rupee wedding with his beloved wife and companion, Devaki, the romance is interwoven with the impetus of social change.

He was always doing something, usually dramatically different from the previous activity. A few months after helping to organise the hugely optimistic Asian Relations Conference in March 1947, he was clearing corpses from the streets of Delhi after communal riots. He went from organising cooperatives among the resettled refugees in Chhattarpur and Faridabad in the 1950s to plunging into the world of handicrafts and marketing arrangements in the Central Cottage Industries Emporium in the 1960s, to setting up the Super Bazaar in a fortnight in 1966, in response to rising consumer prices. Even as he ran a consultancy in the 1970s, he was involved in the JP movement and then in the opposition to the Emergency. He subsequently participated formally in the planning process in various State Planning Boards and in the Central Planning Commission, and even in the diplomatic process as Ambassador to South Africa.

He was politically engaged as well, with the Congress party in the early years, then with the Janata Party after the Emergency and later with a wide range of broadly left-leaning activists. And like all truly practical but principled people, he had an ambivalent relationship with the state: working with state agencies as far as possible when the goals were common and opposing them strongly at other times.

Three themes are dominant in the course of these accounts and, strangely enough, they are still themes of utmost relevance to our contemporary reality: the social and economic potential of cooperatives; the imperative of decentralised planning for genuine and inclusive development; and the critical requirement of broad-based political democracy.

The various experiments with cooperatives that L.C. Jain describes are all terribly poignant, because they all point to partial or even complete but temporary successes that were ultimately defeated, either by vested interests or by the dead hand of the centralising bureaucracy. The cooperative farming society of refugees in Chhattarpur was killed in stages: first by the authorities' insistence on allotting land only to individual members rather than to groups; then by the denial of institutional credit; and finally by the interest of rich non-agriculturalists of Delhi in owning farmhouses as playgrounds.

In Faridabad the city of hope for L.C. Jain an enthralling experiment in allowing refugees to become the constructors of their own homes, again on a cooperative model, and looking for ways to generate livelihood once the construction was completed (before time) was brought to a close by none other than the Registrar of Cooperatives, who refused to register the Faridabad industrial cooperatives or allow them more credit. Aside from a few shining exceptions, senior bureaucracy clearly played a negative role.

Since all these forces still continue to prevent cooperatives from achieving their potential, a problem now compounded by political interference as well, it is no wonder that this mode of organising production and distribution has not captured the Indian imagination as much as it should have. L.C. Jain's account provides both salutary lessons and pointers for future directions in exploring this particular strategy.

A major thread of the narrative emerges from L.C. Jain's association with planning and his realisation that more than 60 years after Independence, centralised planning had not made a dent on poverty because the poor rarely received the benefits earmarked for them. (page 203). But he notes the strongly ambivalent and even suspicious attitude to such decentralisation on the part of political and administrative heads from Jawaharlal Nehru onwards, and points out that in almost every case, political expediency has taken precedence over the intention to implement decentralisation in the spirit in which the makers of the Constitution had envisaged it. Power is concentrated in the Bhawans of New Delhi: Yojana Bhawan, Rail Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan. We have forgotten to build the Janata Bhawan (page 220).

But, of course, decentralisation is ultimately about democracy, and that is where L.C. Jain's passion is most evident. There is a scathing indictment of the Emergency (Democracy died at midnight) and recognition of the significance of silence as a political factor, since it can contain only for a time the suppressed but seething resentment of the people.

But, of course, as he points out, the process of damage to democracy from the decline of the Congress the central party of the freedom struggle began much earlier. L.C. Jain identifies 1969, the year when Indira Gandhi broke the Congress party in her fight with the Syndicate, as the watershed period. In one stroke the character of the Congress changed, from a party with grassroots membership to what I call the Bata Shoe Company, where the proprietor appoints dealers who appoint sub-dealers (page 180).

His concern with democracy is, perhaps, even more compelling today, when the various institutions that could and should uphold it appear to be so vulnerable to distortion. In the book, L.C. Jain does not talk about the apparently unstoppable growth of money power in politics, or the increasingly evident subversion of the media, or the growing problems with the judiciary but these are issues that he was continuously engaged with even during his last serious illness. The relationship between activists and government, in an era when states do not appear to share similar objectives but seem much more driven by corporate agendas, is also something that has to be grappled with.

Despite all this, L.C. Jain's account, and indeed his own attitudes and enthusiasms until the very end of his life, contained no trace of cynicism. He continued to fight for change in every way he could and remained optimistic despite seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. So, it is not surprising that he inspired so many younger people, even those who did not always agree with every one of his arguments. Like him, this book is ultimately and infectiously high-spirited.

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