Exactly 40 years ago on May 3rd Rajni Patel left us. Whatever his flaws his human touch to offer selfless service and ability to galvanise or influence human beings from all walks of life, was remarkable. 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 which is virtually flung into the sea today. Even as a master in public relations he revealed utmost humility. As a barrister it is notable that he never appeared against the trade Unions or workers .In the manner of Jawaharlal Nehru,Rajni Patel was after 1951 a fabian Socialist opposing liberal capitalism and radical Socialism. It is remarkable how unlike most lawyers, Rajni 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 boycott of foreign goods. which was the virtual turning point of his life.Rajni toed Gandhi to organise boycott of foreign goods.
Rajni e was able to cross the seas to England to study at Cambridge,where his life took a new shape.Rajni 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 Serviettes Examination he was flung out of the wall by authorities and prevented from appearing from any other exams. This incident enraged Rajni, with his temper fizzling at a boiling point to overthrow the British empire.Rajni was a most skilled organiser and brilliant orator.
Jawaharlal Nehru was deeply impressed by Rajani and inspired him to practice law., as then he would not depend on politics to survive.Rajani acquired a bar at law degree from Middle Temple in 1939 after previously achieving a tripos in Economics.Susbequently after an invitation he toured the United States of America, 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 by ship to 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 even 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. Within the underground Communist movement he bore the mantle of the most daring courage , Asthma literally got the toll out of him in the villages, To evade arrest from the British he had to survive on a most frugal diet and unhygienic conditions. Still with articulate understanding of Marxism-Leninism he shimmered the torch of liberation amongst workers, peasants, students and youth. Sadly his memoirs thrown no light on his marriage with Sushila Gokhale,who too had turned into a Communist and their bonding.
On being released from jail after Independence Rajni came out of the wilderness to actively work within the 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 he 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. Ironically Rajni won the case in the high court. Few lawyers fought labour and detention cases as astutely and even outside the courtroom would overpower the most lethal opponent. It was hard to visualize a lawyer in that era who could create the impact of a Tsunami in a courtroom, like Rajni, giving the industrialist class the blow of their lives.
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 a Union .and offered free legal advise to Union leaders.Rajni came the president o 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 carer 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 gave a 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 a victory .It thwarted the bid of an anti-Menon youth front led by well known congressman S.K.Patil.Menon was later blamed for India’s defeat at the hands of China and thrown out o the cabinet, which Rajni Patel vehemently opposed, by standing by Menon against all odds.
In 1969 he joined the Congress led by Indira Gandhi. He took up responsibility for the Congress activities in Bombay ,being appointed president opf the Bombay Pradesh Congress Commitee.He was one of the most dominant members of the Congress an was able to bring in many of the leading figures of Bombay’s business elite inspite of Indira Gandhi’s image as an anti-business politician.Rajni Patel was a strong supporter of Mrs Gandhi’s nationalisation of banks government takeover of multinational companies and scrapping of privy purses.Rajni’s first trumpcard was his affable nature ,which facilitated him to build relationships with people from the very affluent to the humblest backgrounds .His 2nd virtue was that he was not in any pursuit of any public office .
On 12th June 1975, the Allahabad high Courtheld Mrs.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 2 weeks later. Rajni was staunchly opposed to the Emergency. After the the debacle of the Congress in 1977 elections, he fell out with Indira Gandhi, being very critical of it’s imposition. Rajni offered help to many persons to escape during emergency, with Ram Jethmalani the best example.Rajni and Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay were bitter enemies of each other.Sanjay had great animosity to Rajni’s left oriented or Socialist thinking.Rajni did not approve of Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation campaign.
However still ,Rajni Patel remained as renowned a public figure. One of his greatest ventures was the construction of a planetarium in memory of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1977 which symbolized scientific temper .With most enterprising and innovative skill he garnered architects, obtained funds, and obtained land.Rajni 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,Rajni also promoted a magazine “Science and Society” in the late 1970’s ,which promoted scientific spirit. “This magazine was renamed Science Age. With Pushpa Bhargava and wife Bakul he organized a series of meetings on Scientific temper, all over the country.Scientist Jayant Narlikar spoke about Rajni’s ardous efforts in crystallising the project and how its construction boosted India’s popularisation of Science. and morale of scientists for inquiry. One could never forget how Rajni loved nothing more than a seminar on ethics, economy or evolutionary science.
A number of cultural, educational and social organizations benefited from his patronage. In a crisis Rajni in periods of crisis came to the rescue of National Herald in 1976,Kesari i nits centenary year in 1980 and the Patriot in 1981.
Rajni fought intensely for women’s rights, and won many battles in court, and outside the courtroom.
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 also headed the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh,which had a membership of 2,00,000 members. In 1981 Rajni even 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 Rajni was held in high esteem by leftist comrades
Few politicians of his day invested as much energy for the needy as Rajni,who collected funds in abundance for floods, earthquakes and other calamities around .It is a virtual rarity to witness such generosity today. India. At the drop the hat he galvanised the entire film fraternity and civil society to support the Citizens Flod and famine Relief Commitee of 1972,The Citizens Relief Commitee for Jamshedpur in 1977 or relief for victim sin the Marathwada Drought..There was also a very memorable campaign on a train journey between Bombay and Pune in aid of visually challenged people.Rajni also made a stupendous effort in the undertaking of relief operations in Morvi,Vidharba and parts of Gujarat in 1979.
Even in his final years, he exhibited grace displaying immense tolerance for pain pr acute discomfort. Even if suffering from pain internally he never reflected t on his face,not troubling anyone, and only complaining if the pain was unbearable.
Rajani was a lifelong friend of Dilip Kumar,Balraj Sahni and Meena Kumari.,in his time.Dilip Kumar was present in almost every function presided by Rajni Patel.
Quoing late eminent jursit Ram Jethmalanai “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,o mater ho w 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.”
Quoting Justice 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.”
Quoting Behram Contractor “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.”
No doubt Rajni Patel had his flaws like anybody. He could not simply gauge the anti-people designs of the Congress led by Indira Gandhi ,which morally protected interests of the mighty and powerful ,upholding Socialism only in form ,not in essence. He organised no boycott of the bar in Emergency or no active movement challenging the monstrous tyranny. Nor did he show any solidarity to events like Navnirman Movement, Railway Workers Strike,Dalit Panther Movement etc.Rajni Patel also flirted with many elements of the very privileged, which patronised economic exploitation and decadence. Rajni was a great friend of reactionary elements like tycoon like Dhirubhai Ambani,politician Sharad Pawar or an international magnate Swaraj Paul. In certain respects his personal lifestyle contradicted his socialist values,.It is hard to analyse what made Rajani disillusioned with the Communist Movement., who gave Marxism scant respect in his later days.
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. I attended it’s inauguration in January 1919 and his birth centenary was celebrated with great vigour in Mumbai in 2015.
In the modern age with Hindutva fascism at a crescendo ,globalisation strangulating society at helm and liberal dissent grounded to dust I have vivid memories of Rajni Patel’s commitment in upholding the spirit of the Indian constitution, confronting suppression of dissent and secularism and defending the cause of labour.I would have loved to witness a Rajni in the modern times defending challenging contract labour cases in court ,and speaking out against attacks on human rights and agenda of Hindutva.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has frequently toured India to cover mass struggles .Met many personalities who personally knew late Rajni Patel, including from own family.