The Life & Contribution of Tau Shri Devi Lal
The first time I saw him was when I along with other kids was busy playing ‘catch’ in the village chaupal. A white Ambassador stopped near the chaupal, and a tall, burly man with a sweet beatific smile, stepped out of it. We stopped playing and gathered around him and the car. He climbed up the chaupal staircase, made himself comfortable on a cot, and said in a booming voice, ‘Kids, go tell people that Tau Devi Lal has come.’
We scurried in different directions and soon the chaupal was agog with men of all ages sitting around him, we kid hovering on the horizons of the swelling-by-the-minute gathering. He seemed to know most by names, and conversed in a leisurely friendly manner to know their well-being.
He was out of the government at that time but people told him his problems – defunct electric transformer, development work not being undertaken, local MLA and minister not coming to the village – as if he was the government itself. They also apprised him about their personal and family issues such as upcoming marriage in the family, death in the family, bullock of so and so being dead and the need to buy another, and house of so and so requiring repairs.
That was Tau Chaudhury Devi Lal for the Haryanvis, especially farmers and rural people – the Tau – the most senior and respected member of the family. He was a towering personality, literally and figuratively. In his illustrious political life, he served as Haryana’s chief minister twice – first in 1977-79 and then in 1987-89. He also served as the deputy Prime Minister of India from 1989 to 1991.
But the journey started much earlier.
Originally named Devi Dayal, Tau Devi Lal’s first foray in the public life happened at the tender age of 16; he participated in a demonstration organized by shri Lala Lajpat Rai in 1928. Deeply influenced by Gandhi ji and national freedom struggle, he quit studies and joined freedom movement along with his elder brother Sahib Ram when he was in tenth standard at a school in Moga. For taking part in the namak satyagrah, he was sentenced to one-year rigorous imprisonment and sent to Hisar jail in 1930.
In 1938, he was selected as a delegate of All India Congress Committee. In January 1940, he and Sahib Ram, his elder brother, courted arrest as satyagrahis along with over ten thousand people. He was fined Rs 100 and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. He was again arrested on 5th October, 1942 and was sentenced to be kept in Multan jail for two years.
After independence, his first movement was to mobilize farmers against the anti-farmer Muzzara Act. He was arrested along with 500 farmers. After some time, the then chief minister of Punjab, Gopi Chand Bhargawa, made an agreement and Muzzara act was amended. He was first elected MLA in 1952. In 1956, he became President of the Punjab Congress. During his second term in the assembly (1962–67), he played a key role in the formation of Haryana as a separate state from Punjab.
Disenchanted with its leadership and working, he left the Congress party in 1971. Along with other opposition leaders, he went to jail for nineteen months during the emergency. In 1977 general elections after the end of the emergency, he led the Janata Party to victory, and became Haryana’s chief minister for the first time. Again in 1987, he became the chief minister when he created a winning record; his alliance won 85 out of the 90 seats in the assembly.
This win also provided an impetus to the second non-Congress alternative experiment at the Centre in the form of the Janata Dal, where Tau Chaudhury Devi Lal played a national leading role. He toured far and wide in the country mobilising people and opposition leaders. In the 1989 parliamentary election, he emerged triumphant in two parliamentary constituencies in two different states – Sikar in Rajasthan and Rohtak in Haryana. He served the country as deputy prime minister from 1989 to 1991.
During his stint as the chief minister of Haryana, he started several schemes and programmes which became blue prints for later day policies. Haryana was the first state to start an old age pension which later became a national scheme. His ‘kaam ke badle anaaj (grains in lieu of work)’ scheme could be called a precursor to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Flood water would enter villages during rainy season causing unhygienic conditions and diseases in the villages.
Tau Chaudhury Devi Lal got sand-bunds built around villages to address this problem through the kaam ke badle anaaj scheme. Increasing the compensation for the farmland acquired for government purposes, financial support to Dalit families for girls’ education and marriage, unemployment allowance for poor young people were some of the other notable initiatives.
Throughout his life he worked for farmers and rural community. The following slogan reflected his thinking and mission, ‘Har khet ko pani, Har haath ko kaam; Har tan ko kapada, Har sar pe makan; Har pet ko roti, Baki sab baat khoti (Water for every field, work for every working person; clothes on everybody, roof on every head; food for all, all else is just vacuous talk).
Last time I met him, he was the deputy Prime Minister, and stayed in a big bungalow in the Lutyens’ Delhi. I, along with two friends, went to meet him. There was hardly any security at the gates. We crossed what could be called a verandah, and there he was on a cot under a tree in the lawn, hunched over a book, reading glasses perched on the nose, and a pen in hand.
He was reading something and making round marks in the book. We greeted him. He greeted us back with the same assuring smile that I had witnessed some fifteen years ago in my village, and gestured to us to make ourselves comfortable on the cot and mudhas. He asked me my name and the name of the village. When I told him the name of my village, he immediately asked me about well-being of several people. He remembered them by names along with other vital family and village details.
Introductions done, I asked him what he was marking in the book. He told us that the book was ‘Who is Who’ of the parliamentarians, and he was marking the names of all the MPs who hailed from villages. He told us that Delhi was not too favourable to farmers and rural people, and that he planned to mobilise all these MPs so that he could get pro-farmers & pro-village legislations and policies passed in the parliament. No wonder that his Samadhi on the bank of Yamuna in Delhi is called ‘Sangharsh Sthal’; he struggled throughout his life for the betterment of farmers and rural people.
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About the Author
Devender Singh worked with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) from 2015 to 2021 where he worked on population and development issues, and as part of the UN Team, he assisted the Haryana government in developing its SDG 2030 Vision Document.