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Shyama Prasad Mukherjee biography

Shyama Prasad Mukherjee

(1901-1953)

biography

Shyama Prasad Mukherjee
Shyama Prasad Mukherjee
        Shyama Prasad was born in one of the most illustrious families of Bengal on 6 July 1901. His father, Ashutosh Mukherjee, had become a legend in his own time and had occupied a unique position as vice-chancellor of the Calcutta University and a judge of the Calcutta high court. Shyama Prasad’s mother, Jogamaya Devi (who outlived him), possessed a strong character and played a character-forming role while bringing up her three sons, eldest Rama Prasad and youngest Bama Prasad. His father’s scholarship, which was reflected in the huge collection of books on various subjects, attracted the intelligentsia of Calcutta to their Bari (house) in Bhawanipur. (Ashutosh’s personal library is now a part of the National Library, Calcutta, forming an important section). The Mukherjees also were devout Hindus and Puja celebrations in their house were well-attended. Such was the atmosphere, a blend of religious and scholastic, in which Shyama Prasad grew up.
He started his education at the Mitra Institution, from where he passed the Matriculation examination at the age of sixteen, winning a scholarship. For college education, he joined Presidency College, Calcutta, getting a Bachelors degree in 1921, securing first class first. For his M.A. he opted for Bengali rather than English or any other subject. While studying for M.A., Shyama Prasad got married to Sudha Devi in 1922. They had four children; two sons and two daughters. However, they could lead a happy married life only for twelve years. Sudha Devi died in 1934. Shyama Prasad, though only thirty-three at the time, did not re-marry.
Ashutosh Mukherjee died in 1924, creating a void in the educational circles of Calcutta, which was later filled by Shyama Prasad. He was elected to the Senate and Syndicate of the University in 1924 itself. He enrolled as an advocate in the Calcutta high court and did legal practice for some time. In 1926, he left for England to study for the Bar and joined the Lincolns Inn and was called to the Bar in 1927. On his return, he did not practice at the High Court as he was drawn to the University work as a member of the Senate and Syndicate. In 1934, he was appointed vice-chancellor of the Calcutta University for two successive terms, 1934-38, the youngest vice-chancellor at the time. As vice-chancellor, he brought innovative changes in the university. Even after 1938, he remained the most important member in the Syndicate and continued to guide the affairs of the university His involvement in education was not restricted to Calcutta University. He actively participated in the affairs of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta; was a member of the Court and Council of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, where C.V. Raman and Bhabha were working at the time. He was also chairman of the Inter-University Board. Thus, for thirteen years education was his main activity.
Thereafter, he entered the sphere of politics. He was elected to the Bengal Legislative Council as a Congress candidate in 1939, representing Calcutta University. But the following year (1940), he resigned when the Congress party decided to boycott the legislatures. The following year, Shyama Prasad was elected as an independent candidate from the same constituency. Thereafter, he was actively involved in politics.
In August 1939, Veer Savarkar visited Bengal, bringing with him his new ideology of the Hindu Mahasabha. Shyama Prasad met him and was impressed by his concern for the Hindus. Being then greatly perturbed at the helpless position of Hindus – whom the Congress failed to rouse and protect – some of us were drawn to Savarkar’s influence and it gradually took root. My tour in eastern Bengal in September 1939, further made me realise how desperate the position of Hindus had become, and I saw how the spirit of resistance against an outrageously communal aggression was dying out – slowly but surely." He joined the Hindu Mahasabha and became its acting president. As a member of the Bengal Legislative Council, he quickly learnt a few lessons. He found that no political party cared to look after the interests of the Hindus. The Communal Award had crushed the Hindus politically. The number of Hindu seats had been drastically reduced. Initially, he was attracted towards the Congress because it was the most organized and representative political body and depended mainly on Hindu support. However, he soon found that the high command of the Congress did not assess properly the ground realities in Bengal. In the 1939 elections, Krishak Praja Party, headed by Fazlul Haq, had emerged as the largest party in the Council, while the Congress had won almost all the Hindu seats. Fazlul Haq wanted to form a coalition ministry with the Congress. However, the Congress refused to cooperate with him, compelling Fazlul Haq to form coalition ministry with the Muslim League. Thus, Bengal Hindus had a taste of Muslim League ministry (1939-41) in the form of communal riots in Dacca and other places. Shyama Prasad worked hard to topple the ministry before further damage was done. He rallied round non-Congress and non-League members and succeeded in forming a Progressive Coalition ministry headed by Fazlul Haq. He joined the Ministry as finance minister. New and dangerous developments were taking place in the country Japan had joined the War on the side of the Axis powers; had run through most of East-Asia and was knocking at the doors of India. British had adopted the scorched earth policy, destroying crops, stocks and means of communication in east Bengal without taking the Bengal ministry into confidence. The Governor, John Herbert, was interfering in the day-today working of the ministry thus rendering so called provincial autonomy into a meaningless farce. Exasperated by the attitude of the governor, Mukherjee resigned on 16 November 1942. While he was still in the Ministry, the Congress led by Gandhi had started the Quit India movement, resulting in the imprisonment of all the Congress leaders. The nationalism of Shyama Prasad came to the fore and he addressed a letter to the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, on 12 August 1942, three days after the arrest of Gandhi and other Congress leaders. Though he was acting president of the Hindu Mahasabha at the time, in the letter he defended the Congress saying that The demand of the Congress, as embodied in its last resolution, virtually constitutes the national demand of India as a whole. He further wrote that “What is regarded as the most unfortunate decision on the part of the British government was its refusal to negotiate with Mahatma Gandhi”. That shows that Shyama Prasad was not anti-Congress per se but a true nationalist.
         The ‘scorched earth’ and ‘denial’ policy of the British government resulted in a terrible famine in Bengal in 1943, in which more than a million and a half people lost their lives. Shyama Prasad organized relief measures in Calcutta, saving thousands of lives, heading the Bengal Relief Committee and Hindu Mahasabha Relief Committee. Famine over, he worked to strengthen the Hindu Mahasabha, of which he was elected president in 1943 after Veer Savarkar relinquished office in 1942. He presided over the Silver Jubilee Session of the Hindu Mahasabha at Amritsar in December 1943. In the speech he revealed that the Hindu Mahasabha volunteers had urged the Hindu and Sikh youth to join the army, navy and air force in large numbers. As a result of their efforts, the proportion of Hindus and Sikhs in the armed forces had increased from one-third to three-forth. Free India will need their services, he asserted. Prophetic words! Under his leadership, the Hindu Mahasabha tried to avoid the vivisection of the country. However, the Congress, as the largest party in the country had already conceded Pakistan under what has come to be known as the Rajaji Formula. When Pakistan became a reality, Shyama Prasad concentrated his efforts to get Bengal and Punjab also divided on the same basis on which India was divided. On 11 May 1947, Shyama Prasad wrote to Sardar Patel that “We demand the creation of two provinces out of the present boundaries of Bengal – Pakistan or no Pakistan”. Congress also passed a resolution demanding partition of Bengal and Punjab. In the meanwhile, a new situation had arisen when Sarat Chandra Bose and Suhrawardy of the Muslim League jointly pleaded for a sovereign Bengal. Shyama Prasad, in speech after speech delivered in various places in Bengal, denounced this effort of Sarat Bose, at the same time demanding partition of Bengal and Punjab. He succeeded in his efforts. It used to be said that “Jinnah partitioned India and Shyama Prasad partitioned Pakistan”.
            In 1946, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly, which was also serving as the Parliament of India. In August 1947, he was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru to join his Cabinet. He became the minister of Industry and Supply. India was passing through a period of acute scarcity of goods of every kind and Shyama Prasad did a commendable job as a minister, establishing industries and looking after the proper distribution of the scarce goods. However, in 1950, differences cropped up between Nehru and Shyama Prasad, when the former signed the Nehru-Liaqat Ali Pact, under which Pakistan could interfere with the internal affairs of India regarding minorities (Muslims). Shyama Prasad gave the reasons for his resignation in a comprehensive statement before the Parliament. He gave seven reasons, besides tracing the pitiable condition of Hindu minority in Pakistan. Sardar Patel, in a letter to Shyama Prasad, dated 15 April 1950, appealed to Shyama Prasad to retrace his steps in obedience to the call of both of us, the demand of the Party and the interest of your province and country" But Shyama Prasad had already made up his mind and did not withdraw his resignation. Along with him K.C. Neogy, Union minister, Refugee Rehabilitation, had also resigned.
      Shyama Prasad resigned from the moribund Hindu Mahasabha and founded a new party, Jan Sangh, whose membership, unlike Hindu Mahasabha, was open to all. He was returned to the Lok Sabha from North Calcutta in the 1952 elections. Only two other Jan Sangh candidates could win. Even then, Shyama Prasad became the virtual leader of the opposition in Parliament by bringing together a few smaller parties under the banner of National Democratic Party. As a parliamentarian he earned respect even from the prime minister.
       Soon after he entered Parliament, the situation in Kashmir drew his attention. He found it strange that though Kashmir was an integral part of India" it had its own prime minister, separate flag, separate constitution – virtually a sovereign state within the Republic of India. The Jammu and Kashmir Praja Parishad was agitating, demanding that Jammu and Kashmir be integrated with India like other states. Indians had to seek a permit from the Kashmir government even to enter the state. He had a lengthy correspondence with Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru on the Kashmir question, pointing out the dangerous implications of the situation but to no avail. Nehru had full confidence in Sheikh Abdullah at that time, which he had to regret later on. To know the ground realities in Jammu and Kashmir at first hand, Shyama Prasad entered Jammu on 11 May 1953 and was immediately arrested, and taken to Srinagar. He died in detention on 23 June, 1953. Several leaders, crossing party lines, including M. R. Jayakar, Jayaprakash Narayan, M.V. Kamath, Purushotamdas Tandon, suspected foul play. Shyama Prasad’s mother Lady Mukherjee wrote to Nehru requesting him to hold an enquiry into the circumstances of her son’s death in detention but Nehru did not agree to that and tended to believe what Sheikh Abdullah told him. Many feel that Shyama Prasad Mukherjee died a martyr’s death. He was cremated on Calcutta in 24 June.
Even while being involved in politics Shyama Prasad was interested in cultural and religious activities. From 1947, he was president of the Mahabodhi Society, Calcutta. He presided over the Banga Sahitya Sammelan at Cuttack in 1952. He was actively associated with the Asiatic Society of Calcutta for many years.

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