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Upholding labour rights, Nehruvian scientific temper, Rajni Patel opposed Emergency

By Harsh Thakor* 

Rajni Patel, who died 40 years ago, whatever his flaws, had one great quality: his human touch to offer selfless service and ability to galvanise or influence human beings from all walks of life. Few people would ever go out of the way to help someone or serve as selflessly without aim of personal gain.
Rajni championed Nehruvian secular ideas and scientific temper. As a master in public relations he revealed utmost humility. As a barrister, he never appeared against the trade unions or workers. A Fabien Socialist he opposed liberal capitalism and radical socialism. Unlike most lawyers, he did not succumb to the lure of amassing wealth.
Rajni was born in Sirsa, in Gujarat, on the very day Gandhi set foot on Indian soil, on 9th January, 1915. He gained his baptism through one of Gandhi's speeches calling for the boycott of foreign goods, which was the virtual turning point of his life. Rajni toed Gandhi to organise boycott of foreign goods.
Rajni was able to cross the seas to England to study at Cambridge, where his life took a new shape. He was elected president of the Indian Majlis and pioneered the formation of the Indian Students League. Representing the world students’ delegation, he visited Spain during the Civil War in 1936. In that very year he presided over the World Students’ Conference held in Paris, attended by delegates of over 50 countries.
Rajni displayed nerves of steel by leading a march against General Franco defying all odds. When appearing for the Indian Civil Services examination he was flung out of the wall by the authorities and prevented from appearing from any other exams. The incident enraged Rajni, with his temper fizzling at a boiling point to overthrow the British empire. He was a skilled organiser and brilliant orator.
Nehru was deeply impressed by Rajni, inspiring him to practice law. He acquired a bar at law degree from Middle Temple in 1939 after achieving a tripos in economics. Subsequently, after an invitation, he toured the US to plead cause of India's independence, imbibing lessons from the racial and civil liberties struggles of America. Such was Rajni's charisma that he was even invited to tea by Eleanor Roosevelt.
On returning to India Rajni was arrested on board in the ship by the British authorities at Bombay and was thrown into jail. Within jail walls he exchanged letters with Nehru who was so impressed that he recommended Rajni's name to Gandhi. After being released Rajni gave vent to his left-leaning inclination which he acquired at Cambridge.
After integrating and working among the farming communities of Gujarat he became convinced that Marxism was the only weapon for emancipation from colonialism and joined the Communist Party of India. To evade arrest from the British he had to survive on frugal diet and unhygienic conditions. Yet, he shimmered the torch of liberation amongst workers, peasants, students and youth.
On being released from jail after Independence, Rajni came out of the wilderness to actively work within trade unions. His sheer exuberance, command and ability to grasp circumstances concretely impressed many fellow workers. One simply cannot forget how as the President of the Air India Officers an Workers Association, he led a delegation of employees to meet Chairman JRD Tata taking him virtually left and right. Rajni rebuked JRD for mocking the workers and pledged to take the battle to the court of law. He won the case in the high court.
Few lawyers fought labour and detention cases as astutely even outside the courtroom. After 1951 Rajni was disillusioned with the Communist movement and ventured on an independent practice as a barrister. Still he chaired many a meeting of unions and offered free legal advise to union leaders. He became the president of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society. People recall the great passion with which he promoted Russian culture and praised its achievements.
One of the great hallmarks of Rajni’s career was his handling of the case of Commander Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati who went to trial for the murder of Prem Ahuja, a wealthy Sindhi businessman. The prosecution was under a public prosecutor, Chandu Trivedi, and a one time judge, Karl Khandalvala. Late Ram Jethmalani has given vivid description of the case in his tribute to Rajni.
In 1962 Rajni Patel managed Foreign Minister Krishna Menon’s campaign for being elected Congress candidate in North Mumbai, which ended in victory. It thwarted the bid of an anti-Menon youth front led by well known Congressman SK Patil. Menon was later blamed for India’s defeat at the hands of China and thrown out of the Cabinet, which Rajni Patel vehemently opposed, by standing by Menon against all odds.
In 1969 Rajni joined the Congress led by Indira Gandhi. He took up responsibility for Congress activities in Bombay, being appointed president of the Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee. He was one of the most dominant members of the Congress and was able to bring in many of the leading figures of Bombay's business elite in spite of Indira Gandhi's image as an anti-business politician.
Rajni was a strong supporter of Indira Gandhi's nationalisation of banks, government takeover of multinational companies and scrapping of privy purses. His first trumpcard was his affable nature, which facilitated him to build relationships with people from the very affluent to the humblest backgrounds. His second virtue was that he was not in any pursuit of any public office.
On 12th June 1975, the Allahabad High Court held Indira Gandhi guilty of electoral malpractices and debarred her from holding public offices for a period of 6 years. This was the precursor of Indira declaring Emergency two weeks later. Rajni was staunchly opposed to the move.
After the debacle of the Congress in 1977 elections, he finally fell out with Indira Gandhi, being very critical of the imposition of the Emergency. He offered help to many persons to escape during the Emergency, one of them being Ram Jethmalani. Rajni and Indira Gandhi's son Sanjay were bitter enemies. Sanjay had great animosity to Rajni's left oriented or socialist thinking. Rajni did not approve of Sanjay’s sterilisation campaign.
One of Rajni's greatest ventures was the construction of a planetarium in memory of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1977 which symbolized scientific temper. With innovative skill he garnered architects, obtained funds, and obtained land. He obtained a large planetarium projector from Carl Zeiss in what was then East Germany.
A series of models were erected like a clockwork model of the solar system and a model of the sun and the planets moving around it. Scientist Dr Shashikumar Chitre recounts how Rajni organised science exhibitions with him for high school students. He also promoted a magazine "Science and Society" in the late 1970s, which promoted scientific spirit. The magazine was renamed “Science Age” later.
Rajni was a strong supporter of Indira's nationalisation of banks, government takeover of multinational companies and scrapping of privy purses
A number of cultural, educational and social organizations benefited from his patronage. In periods of crisis he came to the rescue of newspapers “National Herald” in 1976, “Kesari” in its centenary year 1980, and “Patriot” in 1981.
Rajni had the support of 1,00,000 dock workers, and of the workers of important public sector companies like Indian Oil and LIC. He also actively promoted housing welfare of low income people. He headed the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh, which had a membership of 2,00,000.
In 1981 Rajni appeared on behalf of Union leader Datta Samant and fought a prolonged legal battle against a fertilize company from instating a factory on the coast on behalf of several villagers and farmers. Even after he quit the Communist party he was held in high esteem by leftist comrades.
A lifelong friend of Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni and Meena Kumari, eminent jursit Ram Jethmalani said about Rajni: "Unlike many lawyers Rajni never compromised self respect. He argued with vigour and conviction without being servile. Rajni had enormous courage and knew how to handle people, no matter how difficult. Rajni proved, by his great example, that one can become a successful lawyer without any dishonourable conduct or forgetting one's higher duties in court, to opponents as well as the society in general. Never did Rajni fail to display complete honesty, courage of conviction, empathy, passion and emotional balance in his professional career."
Justice Krishna Iyer stated, "Rajni was an outstanding lawyer who was true to the constitution, respecting the right to life of every human being and made such principles an integral part of social justice .He was simply a patriot of incomparable splendour. A secular and a Socialist he always fought for the disadvantaged because his humanity was larger than legality. He was a prince among the proletariat and of the have nots.”
Leading lawyer Iqbal Chagla stated, "Rajni had time for the most junior members of the bar and his courtesy and kindness were extended universally."
Added Michael Saldahana, "Rajni was not a run of the mill lawyer but had the innate genius to innovate, which is quality seldom found in the legal profession. He combined principles from more than one field of law to integrate them into a new creation, like in the Bajaj Auto case which blended the principles of the Industrial Disputes Act and the Indian Penal code.”
And Behram Contractor said, “He helped everybody. A telephone for a friend, a publisher for an author, a post in a hospital for a doctor, release of flat that a government maybe trying for acquisition, a kidney for someone in need and who may have just sent him a letter, hospital fees, scholarships, school admissions etc. I do no know any other man who could assist a person in difficulty as Rajni Patel through his infinite kindness.”
The book 'Remembering Rajni’ compiled by Rajni Patel's wife Bakul Patel is a most insightful compilation of tributes to Rajni Patel from people of a many walks of life, resurrecting the essence of his character and contribution.
Today, with Hindutva fascism at a crescendo, globalisation strangulating society at helm and liberal dissent grounded to dust, Rajni’s commitment in upholding the spirit of the Indian Constitution, confronting suppression of dissent and secularism and defending the cause of labour need to be remembered.
---
*Freelance journalist who personally knew Rajni Patel

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