Book Review

Craft, Handloom, Art, Policy, Reviews

Book Review: Civil Disobedience- Two Freedom Struggles, One Life. By L.C. JAIN

Tyabji, Laila

A man who says firmly at 85 that the loss of idealism is “unacceptable.” We mourn his passing.

L C Jain’s posthumously published autobiography, lovingly put together by his son while LC lay dying, poignantly evokes his voice – always inspirational, never chastising. It also brings vividly to life a persona and an era that has much to teach us – as India flounders even as a handful of Indians flourish. “If our political class cannot give any inspiration or courage to anybody, how will our civilisation survive?” Jain asks. “We will break something of enduring value; we will injure the best interests of humanity.”

I first met LC 30 years ago. A group of us were brainstorming ways to bring Indian craft back into the economic and cultural centre-stage. Someone suggested we meet LC Jain. I remember that first meeting – his beautiful expressive face alight with enthusiasm and the conviction we COULD do something. It was he who gave Dastkar its name, urging that it was the craftsperson, the ‘Dastkar’, that must be our core and motivation, not just “reviving beautiful craft”. His wit and wisdom illuminated every discussion, making Gandhian economics not only possible, but the only possible option.

His years travelling India with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya as his mentor, setting up the Handicrafts Board, the Indian Cooperative Union, and the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, serving on the Planning Commission, helped signpost opportunities, highlight problems. He knew that simple practical details were as important as the long-term vision. A characteristic anecdote has him offering a tearful Partition refugee a bath and shave – as important to the young man’s self-belief as promises of housing and jobs.

As in his book, he taught us to avoid fuzzy sentimentality and table-thumping, encouraging one to look beyond policy to practice, and to analyse both Government schemes and Government implementation with objective rigour. The gap between the two, even in the idealistic early post-Independence days, chronicled by him in CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, makes sorry reading. The seeds of corruption, nepotism, extra-constitutional cronyism, institutions that only perpetuated themselves, and centralised, top-down planning whose benefits never reached the supposed beneficiaries, were sown right from 1947. The saga of Chattarpur and Faridabad, communities conceived as utopian models of cooperative development, and begun with great passion and optimism, but eventually destroyed by red-tape, political infighting, and venality, is a dismal paradigm of the failures and flaws of Indian governance. CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE should be mandatory reading for bureaucrats and politicians.

The book’s title – CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE: Two Freedom Struggles, One Life, is itself a powerful metaphor. LC was always civil (except for the early bomb carrying forays of his student days – shocking to me, who knew him as a non-violent visionary!) but he never toed anyone’s line – whether the much-admired Nehru of his youth or the External Affairs Ministry mandarins when he was, much later, India’s High Commissioner in South Africa, appalled at the explosion of India’s nuclear device. And when he serendipitously discovered true love with Devaki, he promptly broke off his previous engagement – equally civilly but firmly!

As he makes clear in this book, the struggle for India’s soul and individual human freedoms came much harder than the initial Independence from the British. One by one, his dreams turned into disillusionment – the Cooperative and Panchayat movements, Bhoodan land redistribution, Swadeshi, democratic decentralisation, the Gandhian system of basic education combining vocational as well as conventional schooling. All were destroyed by official apathy, motivated self-interest, or shoddy practice.

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, and the expediency with which not only Congress politicians but most of civil society passively accepted it, followed by the broken promises and disintegration of the Janata Government which succeeded it, is a gripping chapter, tellingly entitled “Democracy Died at Midnight”. The battle for equitable decentralised governance of a truly free India was an ongoing crusade he fought all his long life, until his last breath. A crusade he increasingly felt he was losing.

LC’s gentle loving ways belied his steely intellect and conviction, his total integrity. He always expected the best of people and as a result, willy-nilly we all DID become better and more brilliant! CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE is full of people, known and unknown, who were moved out of themselves by his persuasive charm and ended up doing extraordinary things: from Pathan refugees, once prosperous traders, who found themselves constructing their own houses, to Nehru finding time post-Partition to personally push reluctant ICS-wallahs into relinquishing their ill-gotten land for refugee housing, and Biju Patnaik flying his own plane to bring in Indonesian delegates to the first Asian Relations Conference. And everyone – Sarojini Naidu, Desmond Tutu, obdurate Gujjars asked to live side-by-side with Punjabi immigrants, even a deeply resistant Tamil Brahmin father-in-law, ended up loving him!

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE: Two Freedom Struggles, One Life is a portrait of an extraordinary man and the extraordinary, rapidly changing times he lived in. It begins in an era when the village postman came on horseback, with a trishul to guard the postbag, and ends in the age of the Blackberry and email -things LC used most effectively! He saw the transformation of the Congress party from a selfless grassroots national movement into what he called the Bata Shoe Company, “where the proprietor appoints dealers who appoint sub-dealers.” However despairing, he effortlessly segued these differing epochs, cultures, values, and mindsets, without ever losing his own integrity and compassion – truly a man for all seasons.

Even on his sickbed, in the last few difficult months, he thought of the larger picture, of others… From his bedside, came a flood of messages. The tragedy of Kashmir obsessed him. Planning what could be done kept him going. We promised him to try. “Sweetheart, you have made my heart dance,” he messaged a few days before his death, when I told him the success of our young women’s group from Baramullah.

We will try to keep the torch he lit on his hospital bed burning, attempting to bring light and hope into the lives of young Kashmiri craftspeople, just as HE lit up OUR lives over the years. That torch burns brightly in this inspirational book. Read it.

Pub: The Book Review Literary Trust. pp: 266. Price Rs 395.00.
January, 2011


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