It was extraordinary when the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) organised a meeting of its party functionaries in Patna on November 26, Constitution Day, to reflect on the Constitution and safeguard it from the alleged onslaught of the Narendra Modi regime, and also recall the legacy of Yusuf Meherally. A great freedom fighter, he coined the iconic slogans “Simon Go Back” and “Quit India”, which were employed for the freedom movement in 1928 and 1942 respectively.
Associated with Mahatma Gandhi since 1927, he participated in the freedom struggle, was imprisoned several times, founded (with others) the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), and played a crucial role during the Quit India movement. He also served as the first socialist Mayor of Bombay, now Mumbai, and Member of the Bombay Legislative Assembly. In spite of such a glorious legacy, Meherally’s name hardly figures in history textbooks and people in general remain unaware about him.
Therefore, nine-time RJD MLA, former MP and minister in the Bihar government Vrishin Patel took the initiative that the party should discuss the remarkable legacy of Meherally, who was born on September 23, 1903 and breathed his last on July 2, 1950. The state president of the RJD, Jagadanand Singh, took it forward to commemorate the rich contributions of Meherally to India’s struggle for independence and shapin the idea of India, which is now endangered by the powers that be at the Centre.
I had the privilege of being invited to speak on the occasion graced, among others, by the youthful leader of RJD and deputy chief minister of Bihar Tejashwi Yadav.
Madhu Dandavate’s book Yusuf Meherally: Quest for New Horizons threw light on his address in Patna on December 27-28, 1941 to enlist the support of the people for Mahatma Gandhi’s individual satyagraha, launched by him a few months before the Quit India movement, for the cause of press freedom. Among several of his satyagrahas, that was the only one dedicated to defend press freedom curbed by the British regime after India was dragged to participate in the Second World War without the consent of its people. Meherally along with several others including Vinoba Bhave, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad participated in it. Gandhi described “the freedom of pen and freedom of speech as foundation of Swaraj”. He urged people to defend it with all their might.
I then flagged the point that India is now occupying the 161st rank in the press freedom index. Besides, corporate controlled mainstream media is indulging in propaganda of the ruling regime at the Centre and coercive measures have been taken with impunity against several independent media platforms including The Wire and Newsclick. It is in this context that the legacy of Meherally as an individual satyagrahi in defence of press freedom assumes greater significance.
Meherally also stated in his Patna speech that the youth should address the rising communal problem by focusing attention on common problems of people regardless of their faiths and promote greater cultural fusion among Hindus and Muslims for establishing enduring unity among them. Those words sound so contemporary in present day-India for those wanting to defeat Hindutva forces calling for genocide of minorities, particularly Muslims, and stridently campaigning for their comprehensive social and economic boycott. Probably Meherally, as a fine product of our composite culture, would not have been spared by such forces on account of his faith. Had he been living in India now, confronting the onslaught of majoritariansim and polarisation, he would have been deeply anguished.
I stated that Meherally interviewed Gandhi on March 22, 1930 during the historic Dandi March and asked how the Congress should attract Muslims to its fold and protect them from the pernicious propaganda of communalists. Gandhi replied that by serving Muslims – and providing them evidence that the Congress was as much for them as for others – Muslims can be attracted to the party. He underlined that Dandi March centred around the issue of salt, and would bring all communities together. Meherally’s question and Gandhi’s answer to it constitute a remedy to save India from the grip of communal forces.
Meherally’s vision that a Constituent Assembly would frame a Constitution for India flowed from the freedom struggle, and now the time has come to preserve, protect and defend that vision which our Constitution embodies. That would be the real tribute to Yusuf Meherally.
S.N. Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan.