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On Remembering Lohia

During his life, Rammanohar Lohia paid the price for three "sins" that the opinion-making class could never forgive him for - he attacked Nehru repeatedly at a time when Nehru was god-like, he led a vigorous and voluble campaign against English and he publicly questioned upper caste dominance and advocated caste-based affirmative action. No wonder Lohia was persona non grata to the upper-caste, English-speaking elite, from Congress supporters to communists. The Nehru-left dominance of Indian academia and media ensured that a caricature of Lohia became his dominant image. On the occasion of his birth centenary this year, there has been fortunately a renewed political curiosity about Lohia and there is some reason to hope that serious, meticulous and critical scholarship on his politics and ideas may indeed take off. This special issue on the thought and politics of Rammanohar Lohia is offered in this hope.


On Remembering Lohia

Yogendra Yadav

During his life, Rammanohar Lohia paid the price for three “sins” that the opinion-making class could never forgive him for – he attacked Nehru repeatedly at a time when Nehru was god-like, he led a vigorous and voluble campaign against English and he publicly questioned uppercaste dominance and advocated caste-based affirmative action. No wonder Lohia was persona non grata to the upper-caste, English-speaking elite, from Congress supporters to communists. The Nehru-left dominance of Indian academia and media ensured that a caricature of Lohia became his dominant image. On the occasion of his birth centenary this year, there has been fortunately a renewed political curiosity about Lohia and there is some reason to hope that serious, meticulous and critical scholarship on his politics and ideas may indeed take off. This special issue on the thought and politics of Rammanohar Lohia is offered in this hope.

Yogendra Yadav ( is at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

hat we remember and what we have forgotten about Rammanohar Lohia on the occasion of his birth centenary is as much a comment on the state of political and intellectual life in contemporary India as it is on the man who lived a short and intense life of thought and action. His strong personality and iconoclastic mind have split his memory into two strands that talk past one another. On the one hand, there is the small and dwindling band of Lohia admirers, still too dazzled to see anything beyond “doctor sahib”. On the other hand, there are the critics, too prejudiced and self-assured to even read Lohia. With the passage of time, the once passionate quarrel among his critics and admirers threatens to fade into a vast ocean of silence and forgetfulness in the public domain. It is not clear which of these is worse – the partial and skewed memory or the ridiculing forgetfulness. This special issue is aimed as a corrective to both the uncritical adulation and wilful amnesia about Lohia that exists today.


Lohia admirers are usually a scattered bunch of ageing political activists, at the margins of political and intellectual establishments, in search of a party or a cause. More often than not selfless, over-attentive to the symbolic dimension of politics, masters of political rhetoric, and congenitally resistant to the requirements of organisation building, the Lohiaites find themselves out of place in the world of politics and ideas today. A sense of political irrelevance serves to deepen their nostalgia, if not serious grudge against history. Their admiration takes many forms. Sometimes it is a ritual stuti (paean).1 Very often it is a recitation of some phrases and slogans coined by Lohia, or an attempt to read him through the lens of his own writings.2

To be fair, this is not true of all Lohia’s admirers. A small band of socialist activists who derive inspiration from Lohia have tried to keep his legacy alive by updating his ideas in keeping with the times, exploring new themes in the spirit of these ideas and, if necessary, revising them. (The articles by Sachchidanand Sinha and Sunil in this collection represent the views of this category of political activists.) Kishen Pattnayak, a close associate of Lohia and perhaps the most creative thinker in this category,3 had this to say about the Lohia cult,

It seems Lohia was singularly unfortunate in his followers. His followers can be neatly divided into those who ineffectively repeat his aphorisms in a disconnected manner and those who parade their loyalty to Lohia only when it is politically opportune ... even the small sincere groups and individuals whose loyalty can’t be questioned are of no use so long as they remain mere worshippers of Lohia celebrating his birth and death days and parroting some of his witty sayings” (1980: 5).

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Of late there has been a quiet but significant revival of interest in Lohia among people’s movements and struggles, especially those involved in resisting displacement, environmental destruction and large-scale development projects. With such struggles coming up against the old left orthodoxies on development, planning and science, there is a growing interest in thinkers like Lohia who provide an alternative perspective. Lohia’s ideas now inform and inspire, directly or indirectly, some of the more innovative contemporary formulations of people’s movements and alternative politics.4

Lohia’s admirers are not confined to the world of political activists. Perhaps, the more creative interpretation of his ideas took place outside the world of politics. M F Husain spoke recently about how Lohia inspired him, “Dr Rammanohar Lohia had told me that ‘you must paint the Ramayana and Mahabharata, it is a universal thing, it belongs to no one faith’.”5 U R Ananthamurthy has also spoken about Lohia’s influence on his writings and those of his contemporaries. He said that Lohia made it possible for him to be “a critical insider”. (Chandan Gowda’s article in this collection traces Lohia’s deep impact on the Kannada literary tradition.) His influence on Hindi literature and writers in other Indian languages is also well known.6 It is not wrong to say that much of this influence was confined to writers who personally came in contact with Lohia and that it was rarely carried forward to the following generation.

If Lohia’s admirers have been voluble and unimaginative, his critics have largely deployed silence as an effective weapon of ridicule. The two most powerful orientations in the institutionalised world of ideas in post-independent India – Nehruvian and Marxist – came together to design a wall of silence around Lohia. The contempt underlying this silence came through occasionally. For instance, this is how Aijaz Ahmed introduces Lohia to his readers, “Rammanohar Lohia … who had a visceral hatred of Nehru, had built a sizeable base for himself, especially in UP, with a combination of a broadly populist programme and extreme linguistic cultural chauvinism in support of Hindi as the national language” (2002: 344-45). This contempt, generously reciprocated by Lohia, was transmitted to the next generation of leftwing or progressive thinkers in the form of ignorance. This gave rise to a left wing academic culture that made it easy to dismiss Lohia without reading him.7 The sheer weight of the negative, though silent, assessment of Lohia has affected our collective memory of him, not very dissimilar to Ambedkar’s memory before the renewal of interest in him in the wake of his birth centenary and the collapse of the Soviet Union. On balance, Lohia has been stuck with a rather unflattering image. He is seen to be something of a loose cannon – eccentric if brilliant, selfrighteous in his honesty, acerbic and unrestrained in his speech, flamboyant and disjointed in his ideas.8 However, it must be said that there is now a small number, maybe even a critical mass, of Marxist and ex-Marxist scholars and activists who are willing to cast their intellectual net wide, which has led to a growing curiosity about Lohia.9

There is one respect in which Lohia’s admirers and critics collude with each other. His baiters do not feel that he deserves any critical attention and his admirers think that he is above any serious criticism. So, it is quite possible that the momentary attention that Lohia centenary has brought him may not spur a systematic critical scrutiny of his ideas and politics.


In the world of politics, Lohia is remembered today as the originator of Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservations;10 the champion of backward castes in the politics of north India;11 the father of non-Congressism; the uncompromising critic of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty; and the man responsible for the politics of antiEnglish.12 This has of course been a function of the image of his political legatees like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav and George Fernandes. The disappearance of the socialist movement from the political map of contemporary India has meant that many dimensions of his egalitarianism have been largely erased from the world of politics. Lohia’s economic agenda – his campaigns against poverty, unemployment and price rise – is almost forgotten. So is his consistent and uncompromising advocacy of gender justice.13 With “nationalism” becoming a dirty word in progressive politics, we cannot even recognise Lohia’s brand of nationalism which combined a sharp response to Chinese aggression with a visionary Himalaya policy; which upheld the Indian case on Kashmir but not the unholy and undemocratic games in the Valley; which was at pains to distinguish the Pakistani rulers from ordinary Pakistanis; and which worked hard to separate the Pakistan question from that of Indian Muslims. A shallow understanding of politics has meant a collective inability to grasp Lohia’s cultural politics, which included efforts to organise a Ramayan Mela; an initiative to bring Indian languages closer to one another; a plea for cleaning rivers and protecting centres of pilgrimage; and an anxiety about culturally integrating the north-east with the rest of the country. The narrow, inward gaze of contemporary politics has also meant oblivion of the international dimension of his politics – his resolute pacifi sm; his opposition to nuclear weapons; his protests against racial inequality;14 his advocacy of an Indo-Pak federacy; and his dream of a world without visas and passports.

Compared to how he is remembered in the world of politics, his memory in the world of ideas is more intriguing, and also a sad commentary on India’s institutionalised academia. There is a deep irony here. Lohia has faded away precisely when some of the themes signalled by him have risen to respectability and prominence in western, and therefore Indian, academia. After the “linguistic turn”, social sciences are more sensitive to the significance of culture as an instrument of dominance and power. But that has not led to a scholarly attention of Lohia’s writings on this theme, which preceded post-colonial cultural critiques by well over two decades.15 The power of language and the role of English as a language of power have become commonplace in social sciences. Yet Lohia’s “Banish English” campaign is still viewed as the parochial voice of a Hindi supremacist. His critique

EPW is grateful to Yogendra Yadav who has guest edited this special issue on different aspects of the life, work and politics of Rammanohar Lohia.

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of Euro-centricism has not invited even a gesture of acknowledgement from post-Saidian scholars, who include many Indian academics. Despite plenty of work on multiple and alternative modernities, there has been no attempt to trace the roots of these ideas in someone like Lohia. Although the post-modernist stance has become trendy, Lohia’s resolute philosophical anti-objectivism, rare for a political actor and that too for one from the left, has drawn no attention.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is recognition that the model of development that Soviet-style socialism shared with capitalism needs a rethink, but that has not spawned any interest in Lohia’s advocacy of the small machine and economic decentralisation. Despite much interest in dependency theories of underdevelopment, there has been no follow-up on Lohia’s thesis of the twin origins of capitalism and colonialism. The experience of 20th century revolutions has led to a realisation that the battle against inequality has to be fought separately on several fronts, but Lohia’s “Seven Revolutions” are yet to register on the radar of Indian intellectuals.

Affirmative action is in the news and has gained more academic respectability than before. While the roots of Mandal are traced back to Lohia, there is little realisation of the concept of equality that informed his thinking on social justice or about his warnings and note of caution about policies of affi rmative action. (Anand Kumar’s article in this issue argues against the common caste-centric misreading of Lohia.) We do not remember, for example, that for Lohia shudras included women of any caste. While the feminist strand of thinking has strengthened in Indian academia, Lohia’s feminist tracts have been forgotten by both Lohiaites and Indian feminists. Also forgotten are Lohia’s dialogues with B R Ambedkar and Periyar E V Ramasamy16 and that his utterances on caste were animated by a concern for who are now called dalits. Lohia’s protest against the museumisation of adivasis, implicit in the Jawaharlal Nehru-Verrier Elwin approach, has not been noticed by contemporary anthropology.

Insufficient attention to Lohia’s ideas is reflected even in a deficient reading of his intellectual biography. While he was careful about acknowledging the sources of his ideas, his followers continue to see him as an iconoclastic thinker with no precedence, one who learnt from no one, bar Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi. This has led to insufficient attention to the German roots of his thinking (Joachim Oesterheld’s article reconstructs the intellectual and political context of Berlin when Lohia was a doctoral student there), the evolution of his ideas in the 1930s and the 1940s and the impact his dialogues with Ambedkar and Periyar had on him. It is well known that Lohia’s ideas developed as an internal critique of his own colleagues such as Jayaprakash Narayan and Asoka Mehta. He was reluctant to explicate it, but this has not been done by post-Lohia scholarship either. Nor do we know enough about how Lohia learnt from Acharya Narendra Deva, the one leader in the Socialist Party he deferred to. In general, the task of placing Lohia in his intellectual context, specifically that of socialist thought in 20th century India, remains to be undertaken. (Rajaram Tolpady’s essay in this issue makes a valuable contribution in this direction.)

This is related to the very serious challenge of developing an informed critique of Lohia’s ideas and his politics so as to assess his real legacy. Lohia would have readily admitted that his writings presented a rough sketch, an outline rather than a fi nished body of work. This requires filling the blanks in Lohia’s thinking, enlarging domains such as environment and technology where he offered no more than hints. This would also require reconciling some aspects of his thinking that stood in tension with some others. Examples of this would be his pacifism and his aggressive reaction to the Chinese attack; his opposition to homogenisation of cultures and his assimilationist streak when it came to smaller languages and the north-east; and his universalism and his partisan nationalism when the subjects were Pakistan or the history of Indian expansion in south-east Asia. A more demanding task would be to reconstruct Lohia’s politics in a fast globalising, post-Soviet world. (Sunil’s essay offers one such extension of Lohia’s economic ideas in the present context.) We can get glimpses of this effort in the writings of Madhu Limaye and Kishen Pattnayak. But these are exceptions rather than the rule. (Yogendra Yadav’s essay in this issue offers an argument to identify those aspects of Lohia’s thought that are still “living”.)


At least in part, the distorted memory of Lohia is due to the radical difference there was between Lohia the thinker and Lohia the political leader. This was not the usual dichotomy of high theory and low practice that accounts for much of the hypocrisy in the world of politics. If there was one thing that made Lohia attractive to his contemporaries, and caused deep discomfort to his adversaries, it was an absence of hypocrisy. He spoke and wrote as he thought, he did so in public and was willing to pay the price for his beliefs, he practised in his own life what he preached to others, his political programme flowed from his doctrines, and he was scandalously open in criticising his own party when it deviated from principles.17 The disjunction between Lohia the thinker and Lohia the leader was more a matter of difference in temper and style. Lohia the thinker was a self-conscious “philosophical liberal”; Lohia the leader was a “programmatic extremist” and deliberately so (Marx, Gandhi and Socialism: xxi). The thinker could be exceedingly tolerant of intellectual disagreements,18 always looking to synthesise opposite viewpoints; the leader was often seen to be intolerant, partisan and a divisive influence. The thinker was meticulous in gathering evidence, responsible about weighing it and careful to qualify what he said. Quick conclusions, strong judgments and a bad temper characterised the leader.19

If Lohia’s collective memory today is shaped largely by a selective recall of his life as a political leader, this is partly because his political actions and programmes were more visible and are easier to recall than his ideas. This is indeed how Lohia wanted it, perhaps because he was conscious of the limited immediate appeal of some of his far-sighted ideas. The political symbolism of his action was designed for its attention and recall value, for gathering followers who may not have appreciated his ideas. Lohia’s own followers contributed to this distortion by accentuating each of his weaknesses in political action and reducing his ideas to a few easy-to-digest phrases.

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However, if one has to look for one reason why Lohia is remem-this attention has spilled over beyond the small circles of political bered as he is today, it must have been his disconnect with the activists and opinion-makers to the younger generation of citizens, opinion-making classes in post-independent India. He paid the activists and scholars. The birth centenary activities have had to price for three “sins” that the opinion-making class could never draw much of its energies from those legatees who have been forgive him for – he attacked Nehru repeatedly, bitterly and largely responsible for Lohia’s negative image. Besides, much of personally at a time when Nehru was god-like; he led a vigorous this new attention has been focused on his personality and politiand voluble campaign against English in a post-colonial culture cal action, rather than his ideas. To be sure, the publication of his that put highest premium on being a brown saheb; and he Rachanavali, a nine-volume collection of his writings in Hindi or publicly questioned upper-caste dominance and advocated translated into it, and the much-awaited publication of his caste-based affirmative action in a setting where talking about Collected Works in English is a signifi cant milestone.20 At this caste was a taboo. No wonder Lohia was persona non grata to stage one must hope that the birth centenary will lead to a surge the upper-caste, English-speaking elite, from Congress support-of interest in Lohia, as happened to Ambedkar after his birth ers to communists. The Nehru-left dominance of Indian academia centenary, and this new resource will be used outside the small and media ensured that a caricature of Lohia became his circle of Lohia admirers. One can also draw some hope from dominant image. what appears to be the beginning of a renaissance of studies in

Will the flurry of activities associated with Lohia’s birth cente-modern Indian political thought. Add these to the growing political nary celebrations change this? The various events and activities curiosity about Lohia in radical political circles and there is some associated with the birth centenary have no doubt led to a reason to hope that serious, meticulous and critical scholarship greater attention to Lohia’s life and works than has been the case on his politics and ideas may take off. This special issue is in recent times (Somayya 2010; Oza 2009). But it is not clear if offered in this hope.


1 For example, take this introduction to Lohia’s publications. “Dr. Rammanohar Lohia was undoubtedly the most original thinker, and, perhaps the only one, produced in India during the last hundred odd years. Unlike most thinkers whose thought remains encapsulated for others to act upon, Lohia was a man of action ...” (George Fernandes, “Introduction” to Wheel of History, 1955 [1985]: v). Or, take K S Karanth’s preface to another book in the same series. “In the daring and intensity of his thought and in its originality, he is, perhaps, without a peer, not only in India but elsewhere too” (Fundamentals of a World Mind, 1985: xv)

2 This would be a fair way to summarise a surprisingly vast secondary literature produced by Lohia’s admirers that offers a hagiographic account of his life and paraphrases his ideas on a very general plane. Of these, the best biographies are by Indumati Kelkar (1978 [2009]), and Omprakash Deepak and Arvind Mohan (2006). Gopal Krishna’s essay offers one of the few balanced assessments of Lohia’s political legacy. For some of the notable writings on his ideas, see Arumugam (1978) and Nene (2010). Bharucha’s essay (2000) is one of the more interesting attempts to read one aspect of Lohia’s thought by placing it in conversation with other thinkers, as is the short discussion in his book (1993: 55-66).

3 For a representative selection of his writings, see Pattnayak 2000. Though Lohia’s interpretation of socialism is his point of departure, there are virtually no references to Lohia in his writings. He described his ideas as “deshaj vichar”, (ix), which can be loosely translated as rooted or indigenous thinking, eschewing any reference to socialism or Lohia.

4 For instance, a careful scrutiny of the ideological documents of the National Alliance of Peoples Movements (NAPM), the Bharat Janandolan, the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, the Sarvodaya Karnataka and the Uttarakhand Lok Vahini shows a clear imprint of some of Lohia’s ideas, though none of these is a Lohiaite organisation. Although their leaning towards Gandhi is more pronounced, their attempt to revive the Gandhian legacy of unarmed struggle is closer to Lohia’s heretic Gandhism.

5 Interview with Husain in The Times of India, 15 August 2009, http://timesofi ndia.indiatimes.

com/articleshow/4895430.cms?, retrieved on 8 March 2010. For nearly a decade, Lohia’s headquarters was in Hyderabad where he met the young M F Husain through a common admirer, Badri Vishal Pitti. Husain did the covers for most of Lohia’s books. He figured prominently in Lohia’s scheme for organising the Ramayan Mela. Lohia was close to several other artists, including Jagdish Swaminathan.

6 See Kapoor 2009.Some of the well-known Hindi writers who were influenced by Lohia included Fanishwarnath Renu, Raghuvir Sahay, Srikant Verma, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena and those associated with the “Parimal” group in Allahabad. Saxena’s poetic tribute to Lohia on his death conveys something of what he meant to creative minds. Besides Kannada and Hindi, Lohia also influenced Assamese writers like Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya and several Marathi, Oriya and Gujarati writers.

7 Unfortunately, it is hard to offer anything more than anecdotal evidence for such signifi cant and systematic neglect. Recently the sociologist P C Joshi recorded how P C Joshi, the communist leader, tried to dissuade him from meeting Lohia (Joshi 2010). The present author has come across a large number of left intellectuals who hold strong opinions about Lohia without reading him at all. A friend recalls his unsuccessful attempt in the 1980s to persuade the faculty in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, to order Lohia’s books for the library. Only some critics have cared to read Lohia, though the reading tends to be highly selective and the conclusions largely predetermined. For such selective and unfair readings, see Kumar (2004) and Deshpande (2009). Even when they do read Lohia, as Mishra and Pande (1992) certainly did with diligence, the critique does not rise above the level of faulting Lohia for not understanding Marxism correctly and for going against Nehru.

8 An off-the-cuff remark by a foreign scholar, a close observer of today’s Indian politics, brings out the dominant, if largely unstated, image of Lohia. “I tend to fuse Lohia with Raj Narain. I ... remember Raj Narain: a photo where he squats on the fl oor filing papers between his toes. Idiosyncratic type. Somehow I believe Lohia was similar.” (Email from Danish scholar Stig Toft Madsen to the author. I am grateful to him for granting permission to cite this personal communication.)

9 The web site Sanhati, a left wing critic of the Left Front, posted an article “The ‘People’s Movement Left’ and Rammanohar Lohia: An Evaluation at a Time of Crisis” by Amit Basole at http://sanhati. com/ nexcerpted/1571/. Mainstream carried a number of special tributes to Lohia in Vol XLVII, No 14, 21 March 2009. Perhaps this issue of EPW can be seen as a part of this trend.

10 “Quota Marshall” is how an otherwise sympathetic life sketch was captioned in The Times of India, 3 April 2010, at http://timesofi india/Ram-Manohar-Lohia-The-Quota-Marshall/ articleshow/ 5756713.cms. This was not unrepresentative of the attention Lohia has received from the mainstream media in the last two decades or so. The debate on women’s reservations did not remind people of Lohia, one of the fi rst advocates of preferential opportunities for women, but Mandal did bring him to mind.

11 Chapter 8 of Christophe Jaffrelot’s Silent Revolution (2003) carries a detailed account of the evolution of the Socialist Party’s policy on the backward classes.

12 Only a few academic studies have analysed Lohia’s language politics. See Sonntag (2000) and Dua (1996) for a brief but fair representation of Lohia’s stance.

13 See Sharan and Sharma (2002) for one of the few attempts to place Lohia’s views on gender in the context of the women’s question in the nationalist movement.

14 For an admirer’s account of Lohia’s visit to the US and his face-off with racialism, see Wofford 1951 [2002]; for independent confirmation, see Campbell (1997), pp 218-19. 15 Perhaps the only exceptions are the writings by Bharucha 1993 and 2000.

16 For an exception see Jaffrelot (2005), p 86. 17 Vijayadev Narayan Sahi mentions an incident in Farrukhabad in 1954 when Lohia, just released from prison, scandalised everyone by announcing that he was off for a vacation with his women friends (Sahi 1991: 142-43). More famously, Lohia criticised Pattom Thanu Pillai, the Chief Minister of Kerala from his own party, for allowing the police to open fire on agitators. Towards the end of his life, he was openly critical of the Samyukt Vidhayak Dal (SVD) governments in which his party was a partner.

18 As a member of the Editorial Board of the journal Congress Socialist, Lohia emphasised that “The

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Congress Socialist is among the few journals in the world whose editor has published articles, over and over again, with which he was in sharp disagreement” (Congress Socialist, 10 September 1938). He continued this practice in journals such as Mankind and Jan, which he founded, though by then there were few adversaries willing to publish in his journals.

19 Gopal Krishna captured his self-image. “Lohia saw himself as an upright and uncompromising non-conformist, sensitive to human distress, and playing the role of an accusing prophet in an unjust society” (Krishna 1968: 1105).

these edited by Mastram

20 Both collections,

Kapoor, fi ll a big void in scholarship on Lohia. The collection is still not complete and the volumes could do with clarity of organisation and careful annotations. Yet these volumes would ensure that every scholar does not hunt for the right edition of Lohia’s various writings and speeches scattered across a number of publishers. It should be recorded here that these volumes were made possible by extensive research carried out by the late Hari Dev Sharma.


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India: Politics of Language Confl ict and Language Power” in Joshua A Fishman, Andrew W Conrad, Alma Rubal-Lopez (ed.), Post-imperial English: Status Change in Former British and American Colonies, 1940-1990 (Berlin: Walter de gruyter).

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    october 2, 2010 vol xlv no 40 EPW Economic Political Weekly

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