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Updated: February 1, 2011 13:05 IST

A man for all seasons

Laila Tyabji
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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 have 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.”

Wisdom

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 and his conviction that 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 and highlight problems. He knew that simple practical details were as important as long-term vision.

As in his book, he taught us to avoid fuzzy sentimentality and table-thumping, encouraging one to look beyond policy to practise and 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 the book, makes sorry reading. The seeds of corruption, nepotism, extra-constitutional cronyism, of institutions that only perpetuated themselves, and of centralised, top-down planning were sown right from 1947. The saga of the 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.

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 and others who knew him as a non-violent visionary!) but he never toed anyone's line — whether that of 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.

Disillusionment

As he makes clear in this book, the struggle for India's soul and individual human freedoms came much harder than the one for 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 it was accepted not only by Congress politicians but most of civil society, followed by the broken promises and disintegration of the Janata Government are dealt with in a gripping chapter, tellingly entitled “Democracy Died at Midnight”. The battle for equitable decentralised governance of a truly free India was a crusade he fought all his long life, until his last breath. A crusade he increasingly felt he was losing. The autobiography 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. He was truly a man for all seasons.

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