Jayaprakash Narayan

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Jayaprakash Narayan

Jayaprakash Narayan (1902-1979), Indian nationalist and social reform leader, was India's leading indigenous critic after Mohandas Gandhi.

Adisciple of Mohandas Gandhi and leader of India's independence movement, Jayaprakash Narayan remained a rebel in his native land until the end of his life. Born of middle-caste Hindu parents in a small village in Bihar on Oct. 11, 1902, he became politically active in high school. Just before his graduation, he followed the call of Indian nationalists to quit British-assisted institutions. In 1922, he went to the United States, where he studied political science and economics at the universities of California, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Socialist and Resistance Leader

During his seven years in the United States, Narayan paid his tuition by working as a fruit picker, jam packer, waiter, mechanic and salesman. His nationalist and anti-imperialist convictions developed into Marxist beliefs and participation in Communist activities. But Narayan was opposed to policies of the Soviet Union and rejected organized communism upon returning to India in 1929.

Narayan became secretary of the Congress party, whose leader was Jawaharlal Nehru, later to become the first independent Indian prime minister. When all other party leaders were arrested, Narayan carried on the campaign against the British; then he, too, was arrested. In 1934, Narayan led other Marxists in the formation of a Socialist group in the Congress party.

During World War II, Narayan became a national hero by leading violent opposition to the British. Embracing the resistance movement led by Mohandas Gandhi, Narayan repudiated its commitment to nonviolence, engineering strikes, train wrecks and riots. He was repeatedly jailed by the British, and his escapes and heroic activities captured the public's imagination.

Advocate of "Saintly Politics"

After India gained independence, violence and Marxism waned in Narayan. He led his socialist group out of the Congress party in 1948 and later merged it with a Gandhian-oriented party to form the People's Socialist party. Narayan was considered Nehru's heir apparent, but in 1954 he renounced party politics to follow the teachings of Vinoba Bhave, an ascetic who called for voluntary redistribution of land. He embraced a Gandhian type of revolutionary action in which he sought to change the minds and hearts of people. An advocate of "saintly politics," he urged Nehru and other leaders to resign and live with the impoverished masses.

Narayan never held a formal position in the government, but remained a leading political personality operating outside party politics. Late in his life, he regained prominence as an active critic of the increasingly authoritarian policies of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Mohandas Gandhi's daughter. His reform movement called for "partyless democracy," decentralization of power, village autonomy and a more representative legislature.

Toppled Indira Gandhi's Government

Despite ill health, Narayan led student agitators in Bihar in a fight against government corruption, and under his leadership, a People's Front took power in western Gujarat state. Indira Gandhi responded by branding Narayan a reactionary fascist. In 1975, when Gandhi was convicted of corrupt practices, Narayan called for her resignation and a massive movement of pacifist noncooperation with the government. Gandhi declared a national emergency, jailed Narayan and 600 other opposition leaders and imposed censorship of the press. In prison, Narayan's health collapsed. After five months, he was released. In 1977, thanks largely to Narayan's uniting of opposition forces, Gandhi was defeated in an election.

Narayan died at his home in Patna on Oct. 8, 1979, from the effects of diabetes and a heart ailment. Fifty thousand mourners gathered outside his home, and thousands followed as his casket was carried through the streets. Calling Narayan "the conscience of the nation," Prime Minister Charan Singh declared seven days of mourning. Narayan was remembered as the last of Mohandas Gandhi's colleagues in the independence movement.

Further Reading

The most useful book on Narayan is Socialism, Sarvodaya, and Democracy: Selected Works of Jayaprakash Narayan, edited by Bimla Prasad (1964). Two different assessments of Narayan are in Margaret W. Fisher and Joan V. Bondurant's, Indian Approaches to a Socialist Society (1956), and Welles Hangen"s, After Nehru, Who? (1963). Narayan is profiled in the Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders (1985). □