Long before the Gandhian era had set in, there was born on 3 December, 1884, in an obscure village in the Saran district of North Bihar, Rajendra Prasad, whose life was to be an embodiment of the Gandhian principles. He was to Gandhiji, to quote Sarojini Naidu, what John was to Christ. Jawaharlal called him the symbol of Bharat and found "truth looking at you through those eyes". As early as 1922, C.R. Das, the President of the Gaya session of the Indian National Congress, remarked, trial "At the moment Rajendra Prasad appears to be the sole excuse for a further honest trial of Gandhism to solve a political problem". When this view was reported to Motilal Nehru in January 1923, his reaction was almost identical: "Das is certainly correct. We have given a fair trial to Gandhism for over two years. It seems to me that the only good result it has yielded - I do not say it will not yield better or more results - is Babu Rajendra Prasad". Four year later Vithalbhai Patel remarked, "The one argument against the discontinuance of the Gandhian cult is Rajendra Prasad". Gandhiji himself once said of him : "There is at least one man who would not hesitate to take the cup of poison from my hands". No wonder Gunther called him the heart of the Congress organization. Another publicist wrote that Mahatma Gandhi with his uncanny insight picked out and groomed three of his colleagues for important roles in national life. In Jawaharlal he saw the dynamism of youth that never ages and a soaring idealism intent on a synthesis of ethical values and socio-economic objectives of modern revolutions. In Sardar he saw the great pragmatist and the man of iron will who knew how to get things done. In Rajendra Prasad he saw a great deal of himself.
Rajendra Prasad's great uncle, Chaudhur Lal, built fortunes of the family, a zamindari income of Rs.7,000/- per year and substantial farm lands. He was the Dewan of the Hathwa Raj, highly respected by all, honest, loyal and efficient. Rajendra Prasad's father, Mahadev Sahay, was a country gentleman, a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit. His hobbies were wrestling and horticulture and he took delight in providing free Ayurvedic and Unani treatment to patients who flocked to him. Rajendra Prasad's mother, Kamleshwari Devi, was a devout lady who would not give up her evening bath and Pooja even though plagued by a cough which eventually proved fatal. Every day she would tell stories from the Ramayana to young Rajendra, as he huddled close to her, eager and receptive, waiting for the light of dawn to peep into the windowless bedroom of the old-fashioned house. No wonder the Ramayana by Tulsidas became his constant companion, though he loved to browse occasionally on the Upanishads and other scriptures also.
The family shunned ostentations, lived simply and mixed freely with the co-villagers. Disparities were not irritating. There was a sense of community, fellow-feeling and kindliness. All shared in the festivals and the Poojas. The flow of village life was quiet and gentle. All this left a deep impression on young Rajendra's mind. The village came to symbolize peace and repose.
At the age of five young Rajendra was, according to the practice in the community to which he belonged, put under a Maulavi who taught him Persian. Later, he was taught Hindi and arithmetic. After the completion of this traditional education he was put in the Chapra Zilla School, from which he moved to R.K. Ghosh's Academy in Patna in order to be with his only brother, Mahendra Prasad, who was eight years older than him and who had joined the Patna College. When Mahendra Prasad moved to Calcutta in 1897, Rajendra was admitted into the Hathwa High School. Soon he rejoined the Chapra Zilla School, from where he passed the Entrance examination of the Calcutta University at the age of eighteen, in 1902, standing first in the first division. When it is remembered that the educational jurisdiction of the Calcutta University extended from Sadiya, the easternmost frontier of British India, to a little beyond Peshawar on the north-west, the feat appears truly remarkable. He had been married for five years at that time. His wife Rajbanshi Devi was a true-to-tradition Hindu lady, merging her identity totally in that of the husband.
After passing the Entrance examination Rajendra Prasad joined the Presidency College, Calcutta, and both brothers lived together for a time in room of the Eden Hindu Hostel. A plaque still commemorates his stay, for practically the whole of his University career, in that room. Not many from Bihar had joined that metropolitan institution. But, before long, Rajendra Prasad gained immense popularity. This was demonstrated in a remarkable early moment in 1904 when as a Third year student he won in the first annual election for the post of Secretary of the College Union against a senior student belonging to a rich aristocratic family of Calcutta. Those were days when junior students did not speak to their seniors unless spoken to. Rajendra Prasad had, moreover, neither sought nor worked for the post. Dr. P.K. Roy, the Principal, in whose presence the election had taken place by show of hands, was astounded by the result, more than a thousand against seven, and enquired as to what made Rajendra Prasad so popular. The great scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose and the highly respected P.C. Ray wanted him to offer Science, but he preferred Arts, for though he had topped in I.A. he had not topped in the Science subjects. While his remarkable distinguished academic career continued and he capped it with a First in the M.A. and a First in Master of Law, other ideas occupied his mind and heart. He had been initiated into the cult of 'Swadeshi' by his elder brother, even before his arrival in Calcutta. Now he joined, while in B.A. (Hons.) Class, the Dawn Society run by Satish Chandra Mukherjee, Sister Nivedita, Surendranath Banerjea and many other luminaries gave discourses here. There were debating and essay-writing competitions and he bagged many of the prizes. A new awareness was dawning on him. The anti-partition agitation stirred him. The processions, the slogans, the speeches touched new chords. He collected the Bihari students in Calcutta and they conducted activities similar to those conducted by the Dawn Society. The formation of the Bihari Students' Conference followed in 1908. It was the first organization of its kind in the whole of India. It not only led to an awakening, it nurtured and produced practically the entire political leadership of the twenties in Bihar.
At the time he set himself up as a legal practitioner in Calcutta in 1911, apprenticed to Khan Bahadur Shamsul Huda, he also joined the Indian National Congress and was elected to the A.I.C.C. A year earlier, he impressed Sir Asutosh Mukherjee so deeply that the latter offered him a Lectureship in the Presidency Law College. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the greatest political leader of India in those days, had met him in Calcutta a year earlier and had exhorted him to join the Servants of India Society in Poona. Due to lack of good management the family estate was in bad shape and Rajendra Prasad was looked upon as the retriever. But had had no doubts about what he should do. Though he could not bring himself to have a straight talk with Mahendra Prasad, his elder brother, he sought his permission and blessing to join Gokhale through a letter in which he gave vent to his innermost thoughts. "Ambitions I have none," he had concluded, "except to be of some service to the Motherland". The shock and the anguish of his brother, however, held him to the family. About that time his mother died and his only sister Bhagwati Devi, fifteen years older than him, returned to her parents' home, a widow at nineteen, and in a way, took the place of his mother. In 1916 Rajendra Prasad shifted to Patna on the establishment of the High Court of Bihar and Orissa. Soon, he succeeded in gaining a marked ascendancy, not only over the clients and his colleagues at the Bar, but even more so on the Judges. His incisive intellect and phenomenal memory were no doubt great assets, but what really established his supremacy, over the minds of the judges in particular, was his innate integrity and purity of character, his inability to stoop to any tactics to score a point, to win a case. Often enough when his adversary failed to cite a precedent, the Judges asked Rajendra Prasad to cite a precedent against himself.
Rajendra Prasad had first seen Gandhiji at a meeting held in Calcutta in 1915 to honour him. He was called 'Karmavir Gandhi' in those days. In the December 1916 session of the Congress, held at Lucknow, he again saw Gandhiji. He knew that the Champaran Kisan leader Rajkumar Shukla and Braj Kishore Prasad had requested Gandhiji to pay a visit to Champaran. The session had also adopted a resolution on the Champaran situation. In the April 1917, A.I.C.C. session, held in Calcutta, Gandhiji and Rajendra Prasad sat very close to each other but he did not know that Gandhiji was to be taken to his residence in Patna on his way to Champaran. He, therefore, left for Puri when the session ended. When Gandhiji reached Rajendra Prasad's residence in Patna next morning, the servant took him to be a client and a villager and showed him the servant's bathroom and the well outside. Barefooted, clad in half achkan, dhoti and Kathiawadi purgree, carrying in a roll his bedding and a few dhotis and some food in a tin box, Gandhiji looked very much an illiterate villager. Gandhiji did not know what to do next, when, hearing of his arrival, Mazharul Haq came and took him to his palatial residence, Sikander Manzil. There was a similar situation at Muzaffarpur Junction Station where Acharya Kripalani, a Professor in the local College, had come to receive Gandhiji with a large number of students. None had seen Gandhiji. None recognized him.
On return to Patna Rajendra Babu learnt all that had happened and hastened to Motihari. He regarded his meeting with Gandhiji as the turning point in his career. He stayed with Gandhiji till his trial was over. Thereafter, things in the country took a different course, by reason of the Rowlatt Act and the Punjab upheaval, and in 1920, even before the civil disobedience and non-cooperation resolution of the special session of the Congress held in Calcutta in September had been confirmed by the regular session held in December at Nagpur, he took the plunge. He openly pledged himself to defy unrighteous laws, and resort to civil disobedience and non-cooperation and thus he constituted himself more or leass as an outlaw in the eyes of the British Government in India.
The decades that followed were years of intense activity and heavy suffering. He ceased to be a Senator of the University to the regret of the British Vice-Chancellor. He withdrew his sons, Mrityunjaya and Dhanajjaya, and his nephew, Janardan from the Benares Hindu University and other schools. He wrote articles for Searchlight and the Desh and collected funds for these papers. He toured a lot, explaining, lecturing, exhorting. He was the life-breath of the constructive programme and a great votary of Khadi. He was the first leading political figure in the Eastern Provinces to join forces with Gandhiji at a time when the latter was without a large and effective following. Another such leader from the West who joined Gandhiji was Vallabhbhai Patel. During the Nagpur Flag Satyagraha Rajendra Babu and Vallabhbhai came closer. Rajendra Babu cherished Sardar's friendship as one of the most pleasant memories of his life. He often went to Sabarmati and toured the country with Gandhiji. He suffered several terms of rigorous imprisonment. He suffered privations for want of a regular income of his own. All the while he suffered from asthma. He would not accept any financial assistance from the Congress or from any other source and depended mostly on his elder brother.
He was in jail when on 15 January, 1934 the devastating earthquake in Bihar occurred. He was released two days later. Though ailing, he set himself immediately to the task of raising funds and organizing relief. The Viceroy also raised a fund for the purpose. While his fund swelled to over 38 lakhs, the Viceroy's fund, despite his great influence, resources and prestige, remained at one third of the amount. The way relief was organized left nothing to be desired. Nationalist India expressed its admiration by electing him to the President of the Bombay session of the Indian National Congress. Mahendra Prasad, his elder brother, had died. The Congress through a resolution remembered his social services and his devotion to the national cause.
When the Congress Ministries were formed in 1937, it was the Parliamentary Board consisting of Sardar Patel, Rajendra Babu and Maulana Azad, which really and effectively provided guidance and control. In 1939 when Subhas Chandra Bose had to be relieved of the office of the Congress President, it was Rajendra Prasad who was persuaded to face the crisis and overcome it. The Congress faced another crisis when Acharya Kripalani resigned and Rajendra Babu had to step into the breach, even though he happened to be India's Food and Agriculture Minister and President of the Constituent Assembly.
He realized that industrialism had disrupted the web of village life woven and integrated for centuries. It had to be re-woven into a new pattern. He wanted that pattern to be inspired by Gandhian values; human needs and acquisitiveness to be regulated through self-discipline; agricultural production to be maximized, village industries to be resuscitated and their scope enlarged; the old sense of community to be recaptured. But he found that the country was unable to resist the pull of industrialization, even hurriedly thought-out industrialization, and he was not happy at the development. This was one reason why he declined to accept the Chairmanship of the Planning Commission. This was why, when Wavell informally enquired what portfolio he would choose if he were to choose it for himself, he said that he hardly needed time to think about it. It had to be Food and Agriculture. Wavell was amused and there was an unspoken why. "Well", Rajendra Babu went on, "the subject is familiar to me. He knew all that the best farmer knows about agricultural operations and practices. But he also realized that certain improvements had to be effected on those methods. The slogan 'Grow More Food' was given by him and the campaign was initiated by the Food Ministry under his guidance. He could not, however, continue for long in that Ministry and ensure compliance with the policies initiated by him. But, before he relinquished charge, he did, as Gandhiji wanted, effect decontrol of foodgrains, and though officials and public men alike had prophesied disaster, nothing untoward happened.
His stewardship of the Constituent Assembly was exemplary. He guided, regulated, controlled, but did so with such infinite patience, skill, grace and firmness that not only none had a sense of grievance but all felt that the discussions were always full, free and frank and left nothing to be desired. During the very first session of the Constituent Assembly, he had announced that though the Assembly was born under limitations it would outgrow those and function as a sovereign body, recognizing no outside authority. The proceedings of the last day of the Constituent Assembly read like pages from a book of tributes and, in a way, indicate how loved and respected he was by each section of the House.
His elevation to the Presidentship in 1950 came as a matter of course. There were some doubts in some quarters. Could a person who was temperamentally a peasant, who lived and dressed like one, impress in an office where ceremonialism and gilded trappings counted? But nothing else was possible. He was the only choice and there could not be another.
As President, he exercised his moderating influence and moulded policies or actions so silently and unobtrusively that many were led to think that, unlike any other Head of State, he neither reigned nor ruled.
He never worried about what people said about him. He never looked into the mirror of history. There were occasions when he differed from the Prime Minister. But that was nothing new. They had differred for almost three decades and yet worked together in the Congress. The differences never embittered their personal relations. Perhaps, both realized that they arose out of their differing backgrounds, beliefs, approaches and attitudes.
It was in 1960 that he announced his intention to retire, and though there were many regrets and many tried to persuade him to continue for a third term, his mind was made up. Jayaprakash Narayan welcomed the decision, suggesting that his direct guidance might be available after retirement to the Sarvodaya Movement. But the 1961 illness, severed and protracted, shattered Rajendra Prasad's health completely. Many therefore, worried at his decision to go back to the Sadaquat Ashram. How could he guide any constructive movement with that frail body of his? Would not the inconveniences of the Ashram prove too much for his health?
His elder sister Bhagwati Devi had passed away in the night of 25 January, 1960. She doted on her dearly-loved younger brother, to whose house she had returned within two years of her marriage, a widow at nineteen. It must have taken Rajendra Babu all his will power to have taken the Republic Day salute as usual, on the following day, seemingly unruffled. It was only on return from the parade that he set about the task of cremation.
Within months of his retirement, early in September 1962, passed away his wife Rajbanshi Devi, whose contribution to making him what he was, though indirect, was considerable. Frail and an invalid for a long time, she was the very embodiment of the spirit of renunciation, selflessness, self-effacement and devotion. She had asked for little and though she had been only partly a companion to him, she had silently encouraged him and never stood in the way. Her husband's will was her will, his pleasure hers. Not many words were exchanged between the two - they would sit quietly together for hours - and yet their silent communion filled the atmosphere with distinct aura.
No wonder, his last days were days of agony. The Chinese aggression had shaken him completely. He had apprehended the danger. He had thought of the dreaded possibility. But "perhaps those who thought otherwise knew better". This consolation was shaken away by the naked aggression. His will to live was weakening. In a letter to one devoted to him, he wrote a month before his death: "I have a feeling that the end is near, end of the energy to do, end of my very existence". And so, when the end came suddenly on 28 February, 1963, he was not unprepared. He died, after a few hours' illness, with 'Ram Ram' on his lips.
Ever since the present Contributor came near him in 1933, the bond grew stronger as the years passed. Rajendra Prasad had great affection for him and valued his judgement. Rajendra Babu and the present Contributor were together in the Birla House when the Interim Government was formed in September 1946. Rajendra Babu said, "We must now move to our residences" The present contributor had brought nothing except his clothes, and wondered as to how to go about setting up a home. When he reached No. Queen Victoria Road - now Dr. Rajendra Prasad Road - in the evening, he was pleasantly surprised to find that not only were all provisions and utensils and crockeries there, but even the statue of goddess Lakshmi had not been forgotten.
Rajendra Babu shared Gandhiji's great vision, the making of a new man in a new society. His mind was capable of broad sweeps. But it would take in at the same time the smallest details.