On 136th birth anniversary of Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India, writing about his life is an exercise of remembrance. As hate and disharmony fuelled by political agenda continue to polarise the world, Prasad’s vision of an independent India is worth remembering more than ever. Born to a family of humble origin in Siwan District of Bihar on 3rd December 1884, his early childhood was spent learning from a local Maulavi because his village did not have a Primary School. His father Mahadev Sahay – an eminent Scholar and his deeply religious mother- Karnaleshwari Devi created a home environment that inculcated ideals of selflessness, purity, sacrifice and humility in Prasad from a very early age. Mahatma Gandhi called him ‘a man amongst men’. He was a Freedom fighter, Academician, Congressmen, Journalist, Lawyer and only two-term President in India’s history. Despite lack of access to mainstream educational institutions and child marriage at an age of 13 years to Rajbanshi Devi, Rajendra Prasad’s dedication to a pursuit of knowledge led him to Presidency College, Calcutta, where he was elected by a huge margin to the post of Secretary of the college union. Impressed by his intellect, an examiner once commented on his answer sheet ‘Examinee is better than Examiner’. Dr Prasad was not only an intelligent student but also a social activist. He was an avid member of various societies promoting education and Indian views. One society, he participated actively in, was The Dawn Society – a Bengali educational society. He, along with Rabrindranath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghosh and other prominent Indian philosophers, promoted Indian heritage, achievements and success with the help of The Dawn Society. It’s for these societies and passion for serving the people that he grew up to become a sturdy leader of the nation. After graduating from Calcutta Law College, he practised law at Calcutta High Court and in 1916, transferred to the Patna High Court and founded Bihar Law weekly. In 1917, he was involved by Mahatma Gandhi to help in a campaign to improve conditions for peasants exploited by British indigo planters in Bihar. He gave up his law practice in 1920 to join the Non-Cooperation movement. After becoming an active journalist in the national interest, he wrote for searchlight in English, founded and edited the Hindi weekly Desh (country) and started his life-long campaign to establish HINDI as the national language. Imprisoned several times by the British for Non-Cooperation activities, he served nearly three times (August 1942- June- 1945) in jail with Congress party’s working committee. By 1946, when the historic constituent was responsible for the task of drafting free India’s Constitution, Rajendra Babu, as he was called, was called upon in his capacity as Presiding officer of the Indian Constituent Assembly and helped to shape the Constitution. He was unanimously elected President in 1950 and after the just general elections (1952) was chosen by an overwhelming majority of the new Electoral College and in 1957, he was elected to a third term. Dr Rajendra Prasad who was said to have an essential clarity of vision, creative imagination and faith was a figure of authority able to use the limited, minimal powers of the President effectively. He set precedent of an equitable dynamic between the President and Prime Minister. While being a good moderator, he was tempted in his approach, patient and humble lifestyle but was firm and resolute in the face of pressure. He was an embodiment of sincerity, devotion, honesty, simplicity and an urge to serve the society and nation at large. When his elder sister Bhagwati Devi passed away in midnight of 25th January 1960, it must have taken Rajendra Babu all his will-power to have taken the republic day Salute as usual, on the following day seemingly unruffled. It was only on return from the parade that he performed the task of cremation.Dr Prasad transformed the imperial splendour of Rashtrapati Bhawan into an elegant Indian home. He visited many countries on missions of goodwill as the new state sought to establish and nourish new relationships. He stressed upon the need for peace in Nuclear age.In 1962, after 12 years as President, Dr Prasad retired and was subsequently awarded the Bharat Ratna, the Nation’s highest civilian award. With the tumults of his vigorous and accomplished life, he recorded his life and decades before independence in many books, among the more noted of which are ‘Satyagraha at Champaran (1922),’ ‘India Divided’ (1946), his autobiography ‘Atmakatha’ (1946)’, ‘Mahatma Gandhi and Bihar, Some Reminiscences (1949)’and ‘Bapu ke Kadmon Mein (1954)’.Dr Rajendra Prasad spent the last few months of his life in retirement at the Sadaqat Ashram in Patna. No wonder, his last days were days of agony. The Chinese aggression had shaken him completely. He had apprehended the danger and had thought of the dreaded possibility. But ‘perhaps those who thought otherwise knew better’. This consolation was shaken away by the naked aggression. His will to live was weakening. In a letter to one devoted to him he wrote a month before his death, “I have a feeling that the end is near, end of the energy to do, end of my existence.”And so when the end came suddenly on 28th February 1963, he was not unprepared. He died after a few hours of illness. In her first citizen, Mother India had imagined a life of possibilities, and seen an unsuspended dedication to making them real.Sunil Vaid
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