Way back in 1920”s in the Town School of Arrah in Bihar had been placed two Matkas for drinking water for students.  As was the practice prevailing at that time, one matka was meant for the Hindus and another for the Muslims. A young new entrant to the school chose to drink water from the matka meant for Hindus, offending the feelings of the school authorities and upper caste students. The Principal of the Town School placed a third matka meant for the “untouchables”. Aghast at the school’s decision, the young boy broke the pot and in one stroke, cast away the weight of the centuries of prejudice, discrimination and life of suffering and indignity and inequality that had marked the Hindu social divides.

The breaking of the matka required a great deal of courage on the part of young Jagjivan Ram. He must have been carrying wounds deep inside him from the daily indignities that were thrust upon the ”untouchables” in those days. It was not just a personal statement. It spoke for the millions of the oppressed who couldn’t walk with those from the upper caste; whose eating utensils had to be separate; whose touch was a taboo; and who were always at the mercy of others. May be the feeling of always being looked down upon led to the decision to uphold his self respect as a human being. May be he came to feel that accident of birth must not decide the fate of his or others struggling low in the order.

He never looked back since then. He went to study in Calcutta where he came in contact with Subhash Chandra Bose. He was active in the relief for the victims of the Bihar earthquake in which thousands of people had perished. His public life had begun by this time.  No wonder he came to set up an organization for the depressed classes.

Jagjivan Ram’s legislative career began when he was nominated as a member of the Bihar Legislative Council in 1936 and in the following year he was elected to the Bihar Legislative Assembly and was soon appointed a Parliamentary Secretary. The individual satyagrah and the 1942 Quit India movement saw him land in jail – a phenomenon common with most leaders of the Indian National Congress.

On their release at the end of the Second World War, election was ordered to the Provincial and Central Assembly. Jagjivan Ram was elected to the Central Assembly. The British came to the conclusion that the time had come for them to leave India, bag and baggage.  A provisional government led by Jawaharlal Nehru was formed on September 2, 1946. Jagjivan Ram was included in Nehru’s Cabinet as the sole leader of the Scheduled Castes.

He was the youngest Cabinet Minister at that time at the Centre and was given the Labour portfolio mainly because of his sympathy for the working classes and his way of dealing with people of different sections. There began Babu Jagjivan Ram’s what came to be the longest career as Cabinet Minister in the Union Government – in Nehru’s government, under Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership and as Deputy Prime Minister in the Janata Government that came to power after the Emergency Raj.

In his long career in the Union government he came to hold several other challenging portfolios like Railways, Agriculture and Irrigation, and Defence, which made him the nation’s most experienced Cabinet Minister since Independence.

There must be something in him and his way of getting things done that successive Prime Ministers ---Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi thought of giving him key portfolios at crucial times. Putting the Railways – one of the largest – was given to him. When India was hit by serious drought in the 1960s, it was Babuji to take the responsibility of Agriculture and Irrigation.

Those were the initial years of the Green Revolution. In 1970s again Agriculture became his responsibility. He provided leadership to the grow-more campaigns, agricultural researchers, as well as farmers and pushed the States to be partners in the mission to make India self-sufficient in foodgrains. India has no longer to beg for foodgrains now; it can instead export wheat and rice now, despite the increase in population.

In 1971, India’s prestige was  high in the world. India helped in  the birth of Bangladesh. While all the wings of the government functioned hand-in-hand under Indira Gandhi’s leadership -- the Foreign offices, the armed forces, it was Babuji who was the Defence Minister to ensure that the three services fight the 1971 war as a perfect team. All the chiefs respected him and kept him informed. He in turn kept the Cabinet and Parliament informed about the war effort. There was no civil-vs-military controversies in his time, no leaks, no plants in the press.

Babuji was one of the best parliamentarians on the Treasury Benches – skillful, patient with opposition criticism and yet convincing in his replying to it. He wouldn’t hit below the belt, yet he could score a telling effect with humour at times, and a gentle repartee. His words were always measured; the pauses in his speaking style attracted the MPs’ attention to what he said next.  He always came armed with facts. Generally, he won’t read from the briefs prepared by the bureaucrats. He had a mind of his own, and a load of arguments born out of vast political experience. Most often he carried the day in Parliament.

The bureaucracy respected his acumen and shrewdness and dare not mislead him with clever notings. He wouldn’t sign without  reading the notes and often made queries they had not anticipated or had slurred over. He was respectful to them, and firm, but would never be rude to them. He knew how they could be made to fall in line with policy decisions taken by him, or the Cabinet. He won’t play favourites either. He wielded political authority without flaunting it too much.

We newsmen liked him, as he was easily accessible, to senior or junior journalists. There was always some copy that emerged whenever we visited him after an important meeting. Not all, but he did share with newspersons the essentials of the story. Never did he mislead a newsmen, nor did a journalist betray his trust. The two-way exchanges between him and the newsmen, senior or young, are no longer as educative as they used to be in his time. But these were different times, different people that made history.

(The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament.)