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Rajendra Prasad biography

Rajendra Prasad

(18841963)

biography

Rajendra Prasad
Rajendra Prasad
Rajendra Prasad was a gentleman politician, a contradiction in terms in today's world. With his mild manners and affable nature he easily won friends and admirers. Due to these innate qualities he was elected chairman (president) of the Constituent Assembly in 1946 and the first president of free India in 1950.

Rajendra Prasad was born on 3 December 1884, in village Zeradei of Saran district of Bihar. His parents, Mahadev Sahai and mother Kamleshwari Devi, had two sons and three daughters, Rajendra Prasad being the youngest. Mahadev, a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit, was fond of wrestling and was a good rider. Rajendra Prasad, though tall, had a frail body and thus could not wrestling and riding. Rajen Babu’s (as he came to be known later) first teacher in their village was a maulvi (Muslim cleric) who taught him Persian. He started his formal education in the Chapra Zila School and passed the matriculation examination in 1902 standing first in the district. In the meanwhile, he was married to Rajbanshi Devi in 1896, at the age of twelve. However, his education continued. He joined Presidency College, Calcutta, because his elder brother Mahendra Prasad was staying there. He passed his B.A. and joined M.A. (English) and B. L. classes in the same college. After doing his Bachelor of Law, he started practicing at the Calcutta high court. In the meanwhile, he also got his Master of Law degree. When Patna got a separate high court in 1916, he moved to Patna from Calcutta. In 1917, he was appointed one of the first members on the senate and syndicate of the newly established Patna University. He soon became a very successful lawyer, liked by his clients and colleagues at the Bar, and even by the judges. He was not a great orator but was erudite and painstaking. He also came to be known as a man of character and integrity.
The year 1917 was a turning point in his life. In that year, Gandhi had come to Champaran to experience firsthand the miseries of the indigo workers, and to fight for their cause if possible. Though Rajendra Prasad’s role remained peripheral, as several others like Babu Brajkishore, J.B. Kriplani, N.P. Malkani, Mazharul Haq were there to help Gandhi in his campaign, the seeds of national service were sown in Rajendra Prasad’s mind after this encounter with Gandhi in Champaran. When Gandhi started the Non-Cooperation movement in 1920 and promised Swaraj in one year, Rajendra Prasad cast his lot completely with Gandhi and became his most devoted and trusted follower. He relinquished his legal practice and withdrew his two sons from government aided schools, as advised by Gandhi under the Non-Cooperation movement. Coarse Khadi was now his dress which he adhered to for the rest of his life. So did his family members. When the Non-Cooperation movement was suspended early in 1922, the Congress party was split. While Gandhi wanted Congress workers to do constructive work, many other leaders like C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru, wanted to enter the Assemblies, thus violating the code prescribed by Gandhi for non-cooperation. The rift between the two factions became public and when the Swaraj Party was formed by Das and Motilal Nehru, Gandhi was isolated. The group which still followed Gandhi, now called no changers, was led by Rajendra Prasad. He devoted himself sincerely and with a genuine spirit of sacrifice to do constructive work, mostly in the villages. He even wrote a pamphlet titled Constructive ProgrammeSome Suggestions. The programme included working for Hindu-Muslim unity, removal of untouchability, prohibition, Khadi, village sanitation, adult education etc. For years, Rajendra Prasad devoted his time and energy to this work. There was nothing original in it. The ideas were those of Gandhi which he tried to implement. It was during this time that he started a Hindi weekly, Desh, at Patna to propagate the Gandhian philosophy and ideas. He also wrote articles in the English bi-weekly (later a daily) Searchlight, starred in Patna around 1920. In 1924, he was elected chairman of the Patna Municipality from which he resigned a year later.
In August 1928, Rajendra Prasad went to London, his first trip abroad, for an important legal engagement which carne to be known as the Burma case. After finishing the legal assignment, he decided to visit Europe. While giving a speech on non-violence and peace in Vienna, a stronghold of the Nazi party, he was assaulted by a group of fascists. He was injured but not seriously.
Rajendra Prasad was not a rabble-rouser like Gandhi and lacked the charisma of Nehru but he was a very sincere, hardworking and a devoted Gandhian. Sadaqat Ashram, which was built by Mazharul Haq in the early twenties, and which housed the Bihar Vidyapeeth for several years, became the headquarters of the Congress whose leading light for twenty-five years was Rajendra Prasad. Here he could inspire young workers t0 do constructive work and devote their lives for the national cause. In1923, a meeting of the A.I.C.C. was held at Nagpur. The government had banned the volunteers to march with the Congress flag. A Satyagraha ensued against the ban. Sardar Patel was given full powers to conduct the ‘Flag Satyagraha’. One thousand volunteers took part but Rajendra Prasad Out-shone them all with his quiet resolve. Patel was impressed, which resulted in a lifelong friendship and mutual admiration. The Patel factor decidedly helped Rajendra Prasad in future.
An earthquake devastated northern Bihar on 15January 1934. Rajendra Prasad, who had been imprisoned, was released by the government on 17 January to help in the relief work. The government, it seems, knewthat it was Rajendra Prasad who had the organizational acumen to carryout the rehabilitation Work sincerely and honestly. He, along with his volunteers, did their best to rehabilitate the people affected by the earthquake. He appealed to the people for funds, food, clothes. Thirty-eight lakhs rupees were collected in no time. Such was the faith reposed by people in him. The Work done by Rajendra Prasad became national news and from a provincial leader he emerged as a national leader. It did not come as a surprise to anyone when he was elected President of the Congress party in 1934 for the Bombay session and again in 1935 for the Lucknow session. In 1937, when Congress ministries were formed in majority of the provinces, it was the Parliamentary Board consisting of Sardar Patel, Rajendra Babu and Abu] Kalam Azad which really and effectively provided guidance and control. In 1939, came some unfortunate developments in the Congress party which not only tarnished the image of the party but also of Gandhi. Subhas Bose was duly elected president of the Congress at the Tripuri session in 1939. Gandhi connived to oust Bose as president because the candidate put up by Gandhi was defeated. He directed the Congress Working Committee members not to cooperate with Bose. Consequently, Bose resigned. There was a search for a new president. Several CWC members declined, including Nehru and Azad. However, Rajendra Prasad could not dare to defy Gandhi and became the interim president of the Congress. Such was the hold of Gandhi on Rajendra Prasad. He was certainly the most devoted follower of Gandhi and remained so during the latter’s lifetime.
When an Interim Government was formed in September 1946, Rajendra Prasad was inducted in it and was assigned the portfolio of Food and Agriculture. The country was facing acute shortage of every food item besides other necessities. Rajendra Prasad did his best to face the situation. In November 1946, the Indian Constitution Assembly started functioning, as recommended by the Cabinet Mission. The proceedings of the Assembly started on 9 December under the temporary chairmanship of Dr. Sachchdanand Sinha. On 10 December, Rajendra Prasad Was elected unanimously as the permanent chairman (later called president). Prasad’s popularity among political circles could be judged by the laudatory speeches made by the members, starting with S. Radhakrishnan, on his unanimous election. He presided over the Constituent Assembly proceedings for three years, till 24 January 1950. The tact, patience and impartiality with which he conducted the proceedings is a glorious chapter in our parliamentary democracy He patiently heard the absurdities voiced time and again during the debates by Muslim League members like Hasrat Mohani who repeatedly said that, “We regard the constitution framed by you worthy of being consigned to the waste paper basket”. Rajendra Prasad, as president, bore all this with praiseworthy equanimity. Incidentally, Hasrat Mohani was the only member who refused to sign the draft constitution. Before the motion moved by Dr. Ambedkar to pass the drafted Constitution, Rajendra Prasad, as president, summed up the history of the constitution making in India. It is a masterly piece of' ‘summing up’ spanning five decades and shows his erudition.
Even before the adjournment of the Constituent Assembly, the president of the new republic had to be elected by the members of the Constituent Assembly. Nehru was against Rajendra Prasad’s candidature and wanted Rajaji to be the first president of India. Sardar Patel, however, was in favour of Rajendra Prasad’s candidature and there arose a mild rift between Nehru and Patel 0n this issue. “Nehru even unwisely wrote a letter to Rajendra Prasad that Rajaji should be proposed as the President, clearly implying that Rajendra Prasad should step down”. Even the mild Rajendra Prasad reacted strongly. Nehru raised the issue against the Sardar’s advice, in a meeting of the Congress members of the Assembly. “There was immediate reaction and a rather vociferous majority expressed its support to Rajendra Prasad. Nehru felt humiliated and even thought of resigning which, of course, he never did. Nehru was astonished to find how popular Rajendra Prasad was among the Congressmen and even non-Congress members”. Ultimately, Nehru proposed the name of Rajendra Prasad saying, “It is a comfort for us all to know that in these future tasks and struggles, we shall have you as the head of this Republic of India”. It was a piece of startling political hypocrisy.
This was not the only occasion when Nehru showed antipathy to Rajendra Prasad. Earlier, on 7 August 1947, when Rajendra Prasad was presiding over the Constituent Assembly, he wrote to Nehru a personal letter drawing his attention that he had received a large number of letters and telegrams favouring a legislation banning cow slaughter. Nehru sent a lengthy reply the same day. It is worth quoting: “I have also received a large number of telegrams and post cards about stopping cow slaughter. Indeed, the number of telegrams and post cards, though impressive, is itself a sign of artificiality to some extent. Dalmia’s money is flowing and Dalmia is not exactly a desirable man. As you know, there is a strong Hindu revivalist feeling in the country at the moment. I am greatly distressed by it because it represents the narrowest communalism. I find myself in total disagreement with this revivalist feeling, and in view of this difference of opinion I am a poor representative of many of our people today. I felt honestly that it might be better for a truer representative to take my place." As Gandhi had used the weapon of fasts" to get his own way, Nehru used the weapon of resignation' again and again to silence his critics. Cow slaughter was not banned. Nehru did not have to resign. An uneasy alliance continued between President Rajendra Prasad and Nehru.
After the 1952 elections, Rajendra Prasad was elected president of the Indian Republic for a term of five years. As president, he addressed the first elected Parliament on 16 May 1952, reminding the members of their responsibility towards the people and the nation. After the second general elections of 1957, he was once again elected as president, opposition of Nehru, who wanted S. Radhakrishnan as president; notwithstanding such was the reputation of Rajendra Prasad, the unassuming gentleman of unimpeachable integrity. During both the presidential elections, he was without the support of his staunch supporter Vallabbhai Patel, who had died in 1950. In 1960, Rajendra Prasad made his intention, that he would not be a candidate for the third term, public. He had already served as the head of the state for twelve long years. As president, he made goodwill visits to various countries starting with Nepal (1956). Other countries visited were Japan, Malaya, Indonesia, Indo-China, Cambodia, North and South Vietnam, Laos, Ceylon and lastly Russia in 1960. On 13 May 1962, he retired as president of India and straightaway went to Sadaqat Ashram in Patna, his old hermitage, where he had spent twenty-five years of his life.
On 25 January 1960, his elder sister, who was elder to him by twelve years, and had been like a mother to him, died. After taking a salute at the Republic Day parade as president, he rushed to the cremation ground to perform the last rites. He had hardly recovered from the tragedy when another one struck. His wife, Rajbanshi Devi, died in September 1962. That shattered his frail body. He had been suffering from asthma for quite a few years. Now, loneliness engulfed him and he breathed his last on 28 February 1963 in Sadaqat Ashram.
Rajendra Prasad was a scholar in his own right. Though he had started his education by learning Persian, he gradually mastered the Hindi language and wrote several books in Hindi: Atmakatha (Autobiography), 1946; BapuKe Kadmon Mein (At the Feet of Gandhi) (1954). In English he wrote: Satyagraha in Champaran (1922); India Divided (1946); Mahatma Gandhi and BiharSome Reminiscences (1949); Since Independence (1960). His book India Divided is a somewhat detailed analysis of the consequences of the proposed partition of India. He tried to prove, with the help of plenty of statistics, that Pakistan was not a viable proposition. The same year, the revised edition of B.R. Ambedkar’s book Pakistan or the partition of India appeared in which he had argued for the partition of India along with complete transfer of population. That book stole the limelight. Rajendra Prasad was not an original thinker. As long as Gandhi was alive, he worked under his shadow. While Gandhi was around, he would even write his presidential address for the Congress sessions in consultation with Gandhi. After the death of Gandhi, his personality flowered, as was evident in the way he conducted the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly as its president and the dignified Way in which he acted as president of the Republic of India thrice.
Several honours were bestowed on Rajendra Prasad during his lifetime. Delhi University conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Philosophy in a special Convocation. The rare title of ‘Rashtra Rama’ was conferred on him by Sri Abhinav Bharati Samaj by Jagadguru of Singeri Sharada Peetham in 1960. Bharat Ratna was conferred on him by the Indiangovernment in 1962.
The former U.S. Ambassador, Chester Bowles, gave a brief pen-picture of Rajen Babu thus: “Rajendra Prasad was a simple-living follower of Gandhi who spent many years in British jails fighting non-violently for Indian freedom. He had a big Walrus-like moustache and his magnificent face always seemed to be holding back a smile at the strange twist of history which took him from the British Viceroy’s jail into the Viceroy’s own palace with the Viceroy’s own bodyguard. He was such a warm and unostentatious person that the great long halls and chambers (of the Rashtrapati Bhawan) must have seemed oppressive and unnatural”.

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