PRASAD, RAJENDRA (1884–1963), first president of India, one of Mahatma Gandhi's closest lieutenants. Rajendra Prasad was born on 3 December 1884 at Zeradai village in Bihar. An outstanding student, an erudite scholar, a true humanist, and a deeply religious person, he committed himself to the cause of his country and remained in the vanguard of India's freedom struggle, guiding the destiny of the new nation after independence. President of the Indian National Congress in 1934, 1939, and 1947, Prasad chaired India's Constituent Assembly and was chosen as first president of the republic when the Constitution came into force on 26 January 1950. He left a permanent mark on the polity of independent India, as his career continues to inspire the nation's citizens.
Rajendra Prasad's Bihar village was cosmopolitan enough to ensure communal harmony and self-sufficiency, allowing its people a comfortable life. He was married at the age of twelve to Rajvanshi Devi. He received his elementary education at the village and then studied at Chapra District School, where he excelled. Prasad stood first in the Entrance Examination of the University of Kolkata (Calcutta), whose jurisdiction in 1902 still extended over Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Assam. He then joined the prestigious Presidency College in Kolkata. He continued his academic career there, winning the admiration of his teachers and fellow students. As a third year student, he won the first election for the post of secretary of the College Union. Though he continued to excel in his studies, this was also the time—following the first British partition of Bengal in 1905—of a new political awakening. The antipartition movement greatly agitated young Prasad, and the popular Swadeshi and boycott movements inspired him to enter public life. He was instrumental in the formation of the Bihari Students' Conference in 1908, an organization that provided political leadership to Bihar in the ensuing decades.
Rajendra Prasad impressed Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, vice-chancellor of Kolkata University, so deeply that the latter offered him a lecturership in the Presidency Law College. At the same time, he started practicing law under the apprenticeship of Khan Bahadur Shamsul Huda. Swayed by the nationalist movement, Prasad joined the Indian National Congress and was elected to the All-India Congress Committee. Gopal Krishna Gokhale had started his Servants of India Society in Pune in 1905; Prasad hoped to join the society, and Gokhale personally invited him to be a part of the movement. Prasad was deterred, however, by opposition from his elder brother, Mahendra Prasad. The economic needs of the family compelled him to pursue his legal profession, so he refused Gokhale's invitation. He later recalled his feeling of "helplessness" in doing so. About that time, his mother had died and his only sister, Bhagwati Devi, had become a widow at the age of nineteen, coming back to her parents' home.
Bihar became a separate British Indian province, following the reunification of Bengal, in 1912. The High Court was established at Patna in 1916, and Rajendra Parasad moved there to practice, swiftly making his mark as a lawyer. His incisive intellect and phenomenal memory were his great assets. His integrity and character impressed not only his clients and colleagues but the judges of the High Court as well. Often when an adversary failed to cite a legal precedent, judges asked Prasad to cite a precedent against himself.
Ardent Freedom Fighter
Rajendra Prasad first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1915 at Kolkata. In the December 1916 session of the Congress held at Lucknow, they met again. In that session, Brajkishore Prasad, a veteran Congress leader of Bihar, moved a resolution denouncing the exploitation of Champaran peasant by Bihar's cruel indigo planters, requesting that Gandhi visit Champaran. Gandhi could not turn down Rajkumar Shukla's appeal. En route from his Gujarat ashram to launch his fact-finding mission to Champaran, Gandhi first stopped at Patna to visit Rajendra Prasad. Mahatma Gandhi soon called Prasad to assist him in Champaran. Prasad rushed to Champaran and accompanied Gandhi wherever he went to interrogate the indigo workers. This proved a turning point in Prasad's life. Gandhi asked him to prepare a list of peasants who had been exploited by the planters. He undertook the task with enthusiasm and conducted the inquiry most effectively. Gandhi was arrested but was quickly released after the government agreed to appoint a committee to investigate the matter. Rajendra Prasad's contribution would not be forgotten by Gandhi, who later supported him to become president of the National Congress.
Rajendra Prasad was so shocked by the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar in 1919 that he endorsed Gandhi's call for a noncooperation movement against British Raj. The special session of India's National Congress held in Kolkata in 1920 passed a noncooperation resolution, confirmed by the Nagpur Congress session that December. Rajendra Prasad played an important role in helping to pass the resolution. He left his lucrative legal practice at the call of Mahatma Gandhi, ceased serving as a senator of Patna University, and withdrew his sons, Dhananjay and Mrityunjay, from their British educational institutions. He started writing articles for Searchlight and Desh. He traveled all over the country, exhorting people to make the supreme sacrifice for their country. A number of new "national" schools were opened under his patronage in Bihar. Gandhi felt the need to start a vidyapeeth (seminary) at Patna for those students who had boycotted government educational institutions. Rajendra Prasad became the principal of this institution. After the tragic murder of police by satyagrahis in Chauri Chara on 4 February 1922, Gandhi immediately called a halt to his noncooperation movement. Rajendra Prasad remained with him wholeheartedly, agreeing that appropriate change could never be brought about by violent means.
Rajendra Prasad now helped Gandhi to launch his constructive program of khadi (hand-spinning of cotton) and village industries in the rural areas of Bihar. Like Gandhi, Prasad realized that without reviving India's traditional handicrafts, primarily cotton spinning and weaving, Indians could not recapture their former prosperity and self-reliance. He felt, as Gandhi did, the urgent need of transforming Indian villages. The Khadi and Village Industries program was to help India's rural people, including women, acquire greater self-confidence. The generation of self-confidence would stimulate political consciousness and prepare people for sacrifice for the sake of the country.
Bihar was devastated by a terrible earthquake on 15 January 1934, after which Prasad immediately organized a massive relief campaign, raising a fund of 38 lakh (3.8 million) rupees. Prasad was widely admired for his selfless devotion to the relief effort. The same year he was elected president of the Indian National Congress in Bombay (Mumbai).
Congress presidency and other offices
The Government of India Act of 1935 awarded provincial autonomy to the people of India. Under the provisions of the Act, elections were to be held in the provinces in 1937. Congress won a majority in most of the provinces of British India, including Bihar. Rajendra Prasad was a member of the Parliamentary Board and played a key role in choosing candidates for election. When Subhash Chandra Bose resigned from the presidency of the Congress in 1939, Gandhi persuaded Rajendra Prasad to accept the difficult job, having the full support of his Working Committee. Congress was again faced with a similar crisis in 1947 when Acharya Kriplani resigned, and Prasad again took on the presidency, always trusted by his colleagues. Just prior to independence, Rajendra Prasad was invited to join the viceroy's Indian government in 1946. He was put in charge of Food and Agriculture, and he created the popular national slogan "Grow More Food." Prasad was then elected chairman of the Constituent Assembly, an important and challenging job, from which he guided, regulated, and controlled the drafting and adoption of India's Constitution from August 1947 until 26 January 1950.
First president of India
When the Constitution of India came into force on 26 January 1950, Rajendra Prasad was elected to serve as India's first president, retaining that high office for twelve years. He exercised his moderating influence and molded national policies unobtrusively, leading many to think that, unlike any other head of state, he never reigned or ruled. In 1960 Prasad announced his decision to retire. After retirement, he returned to Patna, living in Sadaqat Ashram, the headquarters of the Congress Party in Bihar. Within months of his retirement, his wife Rajvanshi Devi died, in September 1962. He himself had been suffering from acute asthmatic disease and breathed his last in Patna on 28 February 1963.
Legacy and Contribution
Rajendra Prasad left a rich legacy of inspiration for generations to come. He shared Gandhi's great vision of peace and rural development, and to realize this goal, he argued for the need for a fundamental change in the prevailing system of education. He lamented the lack of character building or moral training of students in the prevailing system of British education. He believed that education would be useful only if it was integrated into the whole life of an individual. "Education today," he once observed, "is getting more and more divorced from actual life and its requirements. This, in turn, is responsible for the ever-increasing unemployment among the educated classes." (Datta 1970, p. 315) Prasad supported the establishment of new type of "rural university." He advocated the comprehensive development of the student as a person, the growth of close and meaningful contact between teachers and students, and the role of the teacher as a "man with capacity to communicate something good." He recognized the value of scientific research and the application of the results for amelioration of the conditions of India's masses. At the same time, he considered India's past to be a great source of inspiration for the present and the future, since it helped in meeting the challenges of modern times created by the technical achievements of science. He argued that India needed a true history of its glorious past, which should be not only an account of the wars and conquests of kings and emperors, but also one of how great religious, cultural, and literary movements have arisen and influenced hundreds of millions of people, and how art and science, industry and commerce have developed. He held the view that there should be a change in the medium of instruction and that it should be imparted through the "language of the people." He favored Hindi as the Indian national language, since it was "the most common and most widely understood" of all the Indian languages. However, he was opposed to any attempt to impose the study of Hindi on non-Hindi speaking people. He also attached great importance to the freedom and education of women for a healthy national reconstruction, economic development, and social uplift.
Rajendra Prasad totally agreed with Gandhian values with regard to rural economic development. In his scheme of things, human needs and acquisitiveness were to be regulated through self-discipline, agricultural production should be maximized, village industries resuscitated and expanded, the old sense of community recaptured. He well understood that industrialism disrupted the web of village life, woven and integrated for millennia. He therefore advocated the revival of old village industries and widespread use of the charkha (spinning-wheel) and khadi as efficacious means for rehabilitating India's village economy. It not only provided employment to agriculturists during their leisure time but also helped them in augmenting their income. He wanted cottage industries to play an important role in the economic growth of the country, and he recommended that government departments propagate and use khadi for official uniforms and clothes.
A true humanist with an instinctive love for humankind, Rajendra Prasad helped ameliorate the living conditions of the despised and downtrodden Dalits ("untouchables"). He contributed significantly to important social changes to modern Indian society by the uplift those Gandhi called Harijans (children of God) and the removal of untouchability. He was also greatly concerned for improvement in the social and economic conditions of the Adivasis (Tribals). He believed that if the Adivasis remained backward for ages, it was not their fault. In free India, every citizen, including the Adivasis and Dalits, had equal rights. Rajendra Prasad wanted people to develop sympathetic attitudes toward the downtrodden, appreciating their customs and traditions in order to help bring them into India's mainstream of development.
Gandhi conceived of a human society based on love (ahinsa). Rajendra Prasad, as a true disciple, also advocated the efficacy of Mahatma Gandhi's method of true nonviolence for the eradication of hatred and all conflicts between nations and within nations. He strongly pleaded for the cessation of nuclear tests, the banning of nuclear weapons, and total disarmament, and for abjuring the use of force altogether. It is no wonder that his views on world peace and harmony have great significance in the strife-torn world of today.
Rajendra Prasad's life is a saga of the self-sacrificing struggles of an idealist who possessed a combination of sterling qualities. He was a true representative of Indian culture, with deep admiration for its ancient noble traits. His gentleness, simplicity, and modesty made him the darling of the masses. He remains one of modern India's most revered leaders, honored for his patriotism, honesty, and selfless service to his motherland.
Datta, Kali Kinkar. History of Freedom Movement in Bihar. 3 vols. Patna: Government of Bihar, 1952, 1957, 1958.
——. Rajendra Prasad. Delhi: Government of India, 1970. Prasad, Rajendra. India Divided. Mumbai: Hind Kitabs, 1947.
——. Satyagraha in Champaran. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing, 1949.
——. Autobiography. Mumbai: Asia Publishing House, 1957.
——. At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi. Mumbai: Asia Publishing House, 1961.
Punjabi, Kewal L. Rajendra Prasad: First President of India. London: Macmillan, 1960.
Rajendra Prasad (1884-1963) was an Indian nationalist and first president of the Republic of India. He was an important leader of the Indian National Congress and a close coworker of Gandhi.
Rajendra Prasad was born in Saran District, Bihar State, eastern India, on Dec. 3, 1884, into the Kayastha, or scribe, caste. A devout Hindu, he received his early education in Bihar and then attended Presidency College, Calcutta. The Swadeshi movement and particularly the Dawn Society influenced him to become a nationalist. He continued his education, earned advanced degrees in law, and practiced law in Calcutta and then in Patna.
When Mohandas Gandhi arrived in Bihar in 1917 to assist the peasants in Champaran, Prasad soon joined in this activity, becoming a lifelong disciple of Gandhi. Following Gandhi's lead, Prasad joined the Indian National Congress and participated in the noncooperation campaigns of 1919 and 1921-1922. Forsaking his law practice almost entirely, he became principal of the National College in Bihar, edited nationalist papers, and mobilized peasant support for the movement. During the internal split in the Congress during the 1920s, he was a spokesman for the No-Changer group, which whole-heartedly supported Gandhi's constructive program, particularly the production of indigenous cloth (or khadi) by hand spinning.
In the 1930s Prasad, along with Vallabhbhai Patel and others, led the Gandhian Old Guard, which usually dominated the Congress organization. They opposed the Congress Socialists. Prasad was Congress president in 1934 and at Gandhi's request again served as president after the serious internal struggle of 1939. Prasad was a member of the Congress Parliamentary Board, which directed the election campaign of 1936-1937. While spending most of World War II in prison, he wrote his Autobiography in Hindi (trans. 1958) and a book opposing Moslem proposals for the partition of India, India Divided (1946).
After serving as minister for food and agriculture in the interim government, Prasad became president of the Constituent Assembly that eventually completed the constitution of the Republic of India in 1949. He was chosen interim president of his country and was elected the first president in May 1952. Five years later he was reelected for a second term. During his presidency, he toured India and many countries of Asia. In his speeches he stressed national and communal unity, the need for a national language, the scarcity of food and the ways to increase food production, and the achievements of Indian culture. He often drew upon the words and achievements of his mentor, Gandhi, and gave importance to the need for more extensive educational programs, particularly the implementation of Gandhi's basic education scheme. The difficulties of the postindependence years were eased by the close cooperation between President Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Prasad died on Feb. 28, 1963, in Patna.
For more detailed information on Prasad the reader should consult Prasad's own massive Autobiography (1957; trans. 1958). The most useful biography is Kewal L. Panjabi, Rajendra Prasad: First President of India (1960).
Handa, Rajendra Lal, Rajendra Prasad: twelve years of triumph and despair, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1978.
Prasad, Rajendra, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, correspondence and select documents, New Delhi: Allied, 1984. □