“Being as innovative in personal as in social life, Jagannathan gave me the wedding-dress that he hand-spun himself on his charka for 48 days. The momentum of his spinning charka had never slackened, and led us in the path of dedicated social action, the movement that continues to this moment.”

These words were spoken by Krishnammal Jagannathan on receiving the alternative Nobel, The Right Livelihood Award 2008, from the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, Sweden, about her husband. The man who waited till independence to spin her wedding saree passed away at Gandhigram in Dindigul district on Tuesday at the ripe age of 98.

Jagannathan, a Sarvodaya leader and the Bhoodan movement spearhead in Tamil Nadu, along with Krishnammal, was a lifelong activist for sustainable development who worked with the downtrodden, especially Dalits and the landless.

Born on October 6, 1914 at Sengappadai village in erstwhile Ramanathapuram district in a rich family, Jagannathan gave up his college studies in 1930 and plunged into the freedom struggle. After independence, he was involved in the restoration of farmers’ livelihood. He established the Construction Workers’ Home in Gandhigram to train workers to serve in villages. In 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. visited the Jagannathans at this home.

“All along his life, he was into struggles, starting from participation in freedom movement, through the 1964 Vilampatti struggle to get 37 acres of land restored to tillers; protest against the 1968 massacre of 44 farm workers at Keezhvenmani and the campaign against prawn farms,” recalls K. M. Natarajan, chairman, Tamil Nadu Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, who is associated with him since 1949. In 1950-52, he joined the Bhoodan Movement of Acharya Vinobha Bhave. Jagannathan was a trusted lieutenant of Jayaprakash Narayan and their bond became stronger in the 1970s. At the invitation of JP, the couple went to Bihar in 1975 to organise the landless poor in Bodh Gaya. The Keezhavenmani struggle marked a watershed in the lives of the Jagannathans, writes M. Mariappan in the magazine, Sarvodaya Talisman: “This incident shook the conscience of the entire nation and highlighted the plight of the voiceless farmers and the tyranny of the land owning class….Jagannathan and his wife decided to shift their activities from Madurai district and settle down in that area and established an ashram in Kilavur… Their sustained fight to restore tenancy rights to farmers of the lands owned by Hindu temples and its success story is a matter of history.” Into his 80s, Jagannathan fought in the Supreme Court to get a landmark judgement banning prawn farms along the coast. In 1981, the Jagannathans started the Land for Tillers Independence (LAFTI), with the aim of purchasing land from landlords for redistribution and registration of pattas in the name of women. By 2007, LAFTI had transferred 13,000 acres of land to an equal number of families. Jagannathan is a recipient of many awards, including the Jamnalal Bajaj Award. He was chosen for the Padmashri in 1989. Jagannathan is survived by his wife, son and daughter. The last rites will be performed at Gandhigram on Wednesday.