Skeletons from the Congress Crypt: The Tragic Story of Lekhraj Sharma
The real-life story of how a lifelong Congressman and Gandhian Lekhraj Sharma was brutalised by S.K. Patil
Guess what has thankfully become conspicuous by its very public absence in the last twenty years? The ubiquitous Khadi Dhoti and Gandhi Topi on the oh-so-impressive physiques and oh-so-clean bodies of our politicians. Indeed, the decadal reduction in and eventual disappearance of this political attire is directly proportionate to the decline and destruction of the Congress Party, the mothership of this epic hypocrisy.
The emergence of this curiously clad political beast can of course be traced back to its Gandhian inspiration during the freedom struggle. Apart from the token Topi, Gandhi’s closest aide and political masseur, Nawab Nehru not only paid little heed to such sartorial eccentricities but violated every single personal principle and ethic Mohandas Gandhi held inviolable. “Brahmachari” Gandhi’s paranoid experiments in celibacy were defiled by Nawab Nehru on countless familiar and unknown beds.
However, both Gandhi and Nehru’s devotedly shrewd followers had the best of both worlds. They were the astute profiteers of the Gandhian attire, a great cloak that enabled them to indulge in and get away with Nehruvian licentiousness. After the British left, this new class of Congress Gandhians quickly realised the enormous power inherent in the pantomime bureaucratic structure they had founded and left behind. And they had what the British had lacked: the self-righteous badge of freedom fighters and patriots. It simultaneously became their calling card and a currency-printing machine. Few might be aware of or remember the fact that in the wake of the demonetisation of 1000-rupee notes in 1946, the going rate for “conversion” (sic) was ₹ 700 per thousand. These “conversion” experts became political funders for the Congress after “independence.” Some even went on to become provincial ministers and powerful leaders in the party.
Other opportunists took the cue quite quickly. They would queue up to powerful or semi-powerful Congress leaders with claims of having participated in some Satyagraha or similar Congress-sponsored agitations. One of the last specimens of this breed is a senile eminence named Doreswamy in Karnataka.
Arguably, in those days, provincial Congress leaders wielded quite a substantial clout. They would display token deference to the real powers in New Delhi but by 1948-49 they had already emerged as the new feudal lords in a fledgling namesake democracy. As Pattabhi Sitaramayya’s letter (quoted in the previous part) shows, the “high command” had already been reduced to a state of near helplessness before these provincial feudalists. What mattered in the provinces was absolute loyalty and unquestioned obedience to these new masters even by lifelong Congressmen as many would learn at great personal cost.
One such democratic feudal lord was Sadashiv Kanoji Patil, “the uncrowned king of Bombay.” He is known as a “veteran freedom fighter” but in light of his disgraceful transformation after freedom, these patriotic credentials are suspect at best. S.K. Patil was also a three-time Mayor of Bombay and after 1947, distinguished himself as a prodigious fundraiser for the Congress Party. Millions of rupees would materialise out of thin air by his adept ministrations at a time when India was just recovering from the after effects of World War II and the chaotic mess that the British had left behind. Stories of his colourful Nehruvian exploits with women became legendary. He eventually saw himself dubbed as a powerful member of the “syndicate” which Indira Gandhi destroyed.
S.K. Patil was also an intolerant despot who ruined careers and lives of members of his own party.
Mohandas Gandhi’s assassination immediately led to the outbreak of what was then known as “Gandhian violence,” a term few have heard today. Those few courageous journalists and intellectuals who used the term back then felt the full power of the choking hand of the Congress State on the back of their necks. Indeed, “Gandhian violence” forms part of a separate essay but suffice to say that this violent outbreak led to the imposition of a hurriedly conceived law known as the Public Security Measures Act, 1948. Most provinces enacted a variant of this law but the draconian provisions were pretty uniform. It was the first Emergency of sorts and Congress ministers and leaders made full use of its sweeping powers. They would order arrests of Congress critics both within and outside the party on an almost uniform charge: the said offender was “celebrating” Gandhi’s death. In other cases, the unfortunate victim would first be jailed and charges would be invented later. Detentions could be prolonged and there was no judicial recourse according to the provisions of this lethal law.
My Dear Dr. Dhayagude,
Mr. Lekhraj Sharma of Ajmere [Ajmer], who is a friend of mine, telephoned me this morning that his son, Sham Sunder, is a patient in your hospital in bed No. 3, ward 22. I do not know what he is suffering from. Lekhraj is a prominent Congressman and a friend of ours. Please see that he gets all the assistance he needs.
With kindest regards,
(sd.) S. K. Patil.
The foregoing letter was dated 20 January 1948. S.K. Patil was then the President of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee.
Lekhraj Sharma had jumped headlong into the freedom struggle and embraced the Congress Party since 1919. Like millions of others, his inspiration was Mohandas Gandhi whom he worshipped. Lekhraj Sharma had spent the best part of youth in jail. By 1946-47, he had been appointed as the Enrolling Officer of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee. One of his tasks was to give tuitions in spoken and written Hindi to professional Congress politicians.
Lekhraj Sharma would learn the true nature and meaning of the “freedom” we had achieved.
In his infinite naïveté, Lekhraj Sharma decided to contest in the Bombay municipal elections against S.K. Patil’s candidate. He sincerely believed in the Great Democrat Nehru’s long and passionate speeches about open debate, criticism and other noble ideas and had taken to heart Gandhi's lectures about Satya, Ahimsa and Satyagraha.
The nightmare began on 7 February 1948. The Bombay police arrested Lekhraj Sharma as part of its arrest-spree after Mohandas Gandhi’s assassination. He was taken to the Bombay C.I.D. headquarters. The sudden, unexpected blow landed on his body as he was being interviewed by the C.I.D. chief. More blows followed as he fell down from his chair. The police inspector who was raining the blows held his hands behind and pushed his knee on his back grinding him frontally on the hard floor. He yanked Lekhraj Sharma’s moustache, knocked off his Gandhi topi and trampled on it. Humiliation. Helplessness. Cornering, like a caged animal.
That was just the beginning.
On 11 February, Lekhraj Sharma received a written police order that said that he was being detained under the selfsame Security Measures Act. The police had displayed great creativity in thinking up the charge: Lekhraj Sharma was henceforth “communal-minded” and had incited his followers to violence against a “particular community.” It didn’t stop at that. Lekhraj Sharma was also “distributing sweets to celebrate the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.” Therefore, “his being at large would be prejudicial to the to the public safety of greater Bombay.”
The helpless Gandhian, Lekhraj Sharma did only what Gandhi had taught him: he went on a fast refusing even water. The panicked C.I.D. chief assured him that he would do something. In a letter dated 13 February 1948, Lekhraj Sharma wrote to the Home Minister in Hindi (rough translation given below):
The police of to-day are the same as those in the days of the British and cannot be expected to change, but you, our leaders, who have to show your face to the world must not play into the hands of the police and destroy the country.
The Ramraj of Gandhi cannot be achieved through police force, which is itself criminal by habit.
These happenings will never escape the eyes of the masses. You Congress should not get into the habit of using the pretext of Gandhi’s assassination to arrest your political opponents.
To have a difference of opinion is the inherent right of man.
I ask nothing of you, not even my release at your hands. I only ask you to look in the direction of Mahatma Gandhi and not to destroy this country of ours of which you too are a citizen. [Emphasis added]
If one is not moved by this letter, one is not human. But the prediction in the last sentence of the letter has eerily rung true: the Congress Party became beholden to the likes of S.K. Patil and under its current leadership, is quite frank about its intent to dismantle India.
The same S.K. Patil who had called Lekhraj Sharma his “friend” just twenty days ago was now crushing him like a worm. This is the true character of the Congress Party since 1947.
Lekhraj Sharma’s letter did not move the Home Minister much less melt his heart or appeal to his questionable conscience. He was held in illegal detention till 7 May 1948 without trial. Then he was suddenly released. Released unconditionally. He was no longer “communal-minded.” He didn’t incite any violence. He didn’t celebrate Gandhi’s assassination.
Lekhraj Sharma was a free man again.
Because the Bombay Municipal elections had concluded and S.K. Patil’s candidate had won.
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