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Do you know the feminist Lohia?

He dreamt of a coalition of the backward castes, Adivasis, minorities, working class and women which would unitedly oppose all the different axes of power – caste, class, race, gender – and usher in a new world


Dr Ram Manohar Lohia (23 March 1910 – 12 October 1967) occupies prime place among the ignited and charged minds of 20th-century India. He was a non-conformist, rational and sensitive human being. Equally, he was a profound, innovative and brilliant thinker. He dreamt of a society based on democracy, socialism, justice and peace. He visualized a world without borders and barriers. He was, simultaneously, a fierce nationalist and a global citizen, without contradiction.

Ram Manohar Lohia

Lohia’s father, Heera Lal, who was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi, introduced the freedom struggle to him when he was barely in his teens. This left a deep mark on young Lohia. After his return in the early 1930s from Germany, where he obtained his doctorate, he plunged into politics. He started his political career with the Congress but started charting his own path through the 1940s and the 1950s, experimenting with different political formations, collecting fans and followers, along the way. By the mid-1950s, he had given shape and structure to his concept of an ideal society and the path towards it.

Lohia dreamt of a decentralized socialist State that could be realized through electoral means. He wanted to fuse elements of Marxism and Gandhism to come up with a uniquely Indian model of socialism – authentic, rooted in Indian social reality and reflecting the Indian ethos. Here again he wanted to distinguish his brand of Socialism from the Nehruvian model of State-supported socialism on the one hand and from the Indian communist model of centralized Socialism on the other. In contrast to both, he preferred a decentralized economic and political model. He didn’t confine his ideas to the economic realm, when it came to change. He was all for overhauling the social and the cultural structures as much as the economic and the political structures. He even included racism and dominance of language as enemies to be confronted. As for caste and gender stratification, he felt they owed their origin and history to one and the same ideology, which we recognize today as brahmanical patriarchy. He critiqued both institutions and drew linkages between them in his seminal essay, “The two segregations of caste and sex”. In so doing, he joined the league of other great social revolutionaries such as Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar and Shahu.

Ram Manohar Lohia shows Mahatma Gandhi some papers

Lohia’s canvas was vast, crossing national and geographic boundaries. He wanted inequalities between nations, within nations and between castes, classes, sexes, races and communities to end. Like Phule who talked of the Shudras, Atishudras and women coming together, Lohia too dreamt of a coalition of the backward castes, Adivasis, minorities, working class and women which would unitedly oppose all the different axes of power – caste, class, race, gender – and usher in a new world. Through his radical ideas and inspiring leadership, Lohia enthused and goaded his followers into action, during the 1950s and 1960s, leading from the front. He was aggressive and non-compromising in attaining his target but did not leave the path of Satyagraha, even momentarily.

For Lohia, personal ethics was as important as social and political ethics. This was what made him honest and transparent – something so very rare among political leaders of all hues. He always spoke and acted with courage of conviction. One instance is from when his party (Praja Socialist Party) was in power in the State of Travancore-Cochin (now part of Kerala) and was faced with an agitation by estate workers. The government of the day resorted to firing. Lohia could not condone this act of the government headed by his own party. He demanded their resignation. This led to his ouster from the party. In his personal life too, there was no contradiction between his principles and practice. He nurtured his personal relationships in full public glare, unmindful of the consequences. He did not believe in the institution of marriage and so remained unmarried all his life. He did not believe in accumulating wealth. True to his belief, he left behind no progeny, property or bank balance when he died.

Lohia with Prabhavati and Jayaprakash Narayan

Dr Lohia was one of a rare breed of leaders of 20th-century India who gave a serious thought to the gender question. He believed that gender revolution was a necessary precursor for a general revolution. His views on sexuality, chastity, virginity and morality were refreshingly unorthodox and he condemned the double-speak on them. To him, the central issue was the dignity of women, not their so-called purity or morality, and he regarded work as central to women’s dignity.

He condemned female infanticide, dowry system and blamed it on the patriarchal mindset that, he argued, could be displayed by both men as well as women. He wanted this mindset to be ruthlessly and systematically “ferreted out and destroyed”. Every word of every sentence that Lohia uttered on the “gender question” comes with the force of a guided missile, across space and time, to dent the core of patriarchal ideology. He understood, only too well, that patriarchy is a many-headed monster and needs to be attacked from all sides!

What comes through, touchingly, from Lohia’s speeches and writings is the immense and intense love, respect, regard and concern he had for women. He waxed eloquent about the beauty of women – whether dark-skinned or fair, low-caste or high-caste, a labourer or otherwise. He did not see women as empty beauties. Rather, he saw them as productive beings – within the home and without.

Lohia having a meal in the field

Venturing into the realm of mythology, Lohia narrates the story of Shiva and Parvati, in which they dance together, matching steps in competition, as it were. Suddenly, Shiva lifts a leg high above the ground. Parvati, with all the modesty expected of a woman (goddesses being no exception), is unable to match his step. “When Siva made that gesture of vigour, was it to clinch the issue and gain a victory in an encounter that was going against him?” Lohia wonders (see Lohia’s essay, ‘Rama and Krishna and Shiva’), clearly implying the earliest manifestation of patriarchal power relations.

He gives a contrary picture of Shiva in the following story. “… When a devotee had refused to worship Parvati alongside him, Shiva took on the shape of the Ardhanarishwar, half-man half-woman.” Lohia is perhaps trying to tell us that all human beings are a blend of the male and female and that the potential for equality in the relation between the sexes is ever present.

He idealized the fiery, witty, dark-skinned Draupadi over the submissive Savitri or the demure Sita of Indian mythology and said rhetorically,  “If the myth of Savitri exists, please mention another parallel one where a devout husband brought back his wife from the dead, rescuing her from the clutches of Yama.” (See Lohia’s essay, “Draupadi or Savitri”)

In a brilliant treatise on the myths of Ram and Krishna and Shiva, he talks of a Ram who represents a life of limits, a Krishna who is ever exuberant and a Shiva who is seamless. He expresses concern that followers of Ram could degenerate into wife-banishers while those of Krishna into philanderers in a patriarchal set-up. He wanted to enlarge the ideal of Ram-Rajyato Sita-Ram-Rajya!

Lohia is seen here speaking to the magistrate after his arrest in Agra during the 1966 all-India strike

Lohia himself sought to combine the best qualities of the three mythical heroes. Like Ram, he contained his actions, agitations within the norms and boundaries of democratic and legal means available under the Constitution. In the realm of ideas, however, he soared without restraint much like Shiva (for example, he envisaged a world without passports and visas!). Whether engaged in thought or action, he did both with an exuberance that is infectious, very Krishna-like! I would like to venture that he was a true Ardhanarishwara, as his feminine and masculine sides were well balanced and he was in tune with both. That is how he could understand and empathize with the everyday micro-level problems faced by women – like smoking chulhas, lack of toilets, having to fetch water from afar, etc – while applying his mind to global issues.

Lohia romanced India. He worshipped its diversity, plurality and found an underlying unity in its arts, architecture and sculpture. His writing, “Meaning in stone”, is a beautiful, evocative piece and reveals the connoisseur in him. “The Indian people have chiselled their religion and history in stone,” he observes. “Between history and art, there is, in India, a deep alliance. Where history goes, there art precedes or follows.” He ends his essay with the words: “To create is to live in freedom and with vigour.” He comes through as a man with a deep sense of history who is intensely conscious and proud of his heritage.

He interacted with writers, painters and profoundly influenced them and was influenced by them. M.F. Husain, a close friend of Lohia’s, admitted as much when he spoke about the latter being the inspiration behind his ‘Epic’ paintings. So have many modern and progressive writers like P. Lankesh, U. R. Anantamurthy and Tejasvi, who have written prolifically in Kannada, spurred on by Lohia’s ideas and dreams.

When it came to personal relationships, he was very sensitive and perceptive and felt that man-woman relationships were delicate and needed to be nurtured honestly and sincerely. He shunned hypocrisy in relationships and argued for transparency, putting the onus on both parties. He would stress on mutuality in a relationship. He idealized the relationship between Draupadi and Krishna as one of utmost companionship!

Lohia’s dreams were not merely about ending oppression and exploitation but also about well-being and individual and collective happiness, where each individual could bloom and flower, resulting in a happy society. His USP lay in the way he sought to integrate all the different areas of struggle – social, economic, political, cultural – to achieve this ideal. His conception of a happy world was one that was gender-just, gender-equal and ultimately gender-free, among other things.

It is true that Lohia’s contribution to the women’s question was only in the realm of ideas – at best, specific demands for women’s empowerment made in party resolutions – and not really in concrete action. However, in a society that routinely violates women and where misogyny in thought, word and deed is the norm, his ideas on gender equality, stated with complete conviction, commitment and clarity, is deeply significant and very touching.

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About The Author

Lalitha Dhara

Lalitha Dhara is a retired academic. She was the head of department, Statistics, and vice-principal, Dr Ambedkar College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai. She has researched and authored a number of books, including Phules and Women’s Question, Bharat Ratna Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Women’s Question, Chhatrapati Shahu and Women’s Question, Periyar and Women’s Question, Lohia and Women’s Question, Kavya Phule (English translation of Savitribai’s first collection of poems).

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