The rise and fall of Babu Jagjivan Ram is a near forgotten saga that so palpably illustrates the cruel denouement of one of India’s tallest Dalit leaders by the political establishment. Indeed, there is a remarkable lack of remembrance, let alone reverence, for a man who had been projected by the Congress leadership during the freedom struggle as a rival to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s radicalism and dogged refusal to kowtow to the establishment provoked much hostility while he was alive but elevated him into an abiding icon for his own people. But Babuji, despite his long parliamentary career and string of cabinet posts, remains a telling example for aspiring Dalit politicians of the perils of playing Uncle Tom.
A memoir of Jagjivan Ram’s wife, Indrani Devi, published in Hindi more than 15 years ago but now available for the first time in English, should have provided us at least some insights into the twists and turns of his career if not a larger perspective of why he failed to become a Dalit hero. Unfortunately, as has been the wont of most biographies and autobiographies of Indian political luminaries, Indrani Devi’s book is mostly hagiographic and clearly sanitised. In any case, the portion of her memoirs chosen for publication ends well before the most fascinating period of Babuji’s career—the Emergency and its political aftermath. His daughter, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, promises in the foreword that further volumes will be published in the near future. It’s a promise that is unlikely to be kept.