Hiralal Shastri, the first chief minister of Rajasthan, was a notable figure of the Indian freedom movement who not only took on the British but also challenged the princely states ruling over vast swathes in connivance with their colonial masters.
An advocate of gender equality, he started Banasthali Vidyapith, one of India’s first all-women’s residential universities, in the Tonk district of Rajasthan, besides being a staunch proponent of equal rights for members within the Constituent Assembly.
Born on November 24, 1899, Shastri grew up in a peasant family from the Jobner town situated in Jaipur district. A diligent student in school and university, he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Maharaja College in Jaipur in 1921, topping his class.
Soon after graduating from college, he applied for a job in the State Service and rose to the position of secretary in the Home and Foreign Departments.
However, Shastri’s calling lay in social activism, and after serving just six years he quit his job. He instead decided to adopt a remote and backward village 52 km away from Jaipur called Banasthali, where he founded a collective of aspiring social workers looking to transform the village’s social and economic structures called ‘Jeevan Kutir.’
There he would also train scores of dedicated social workers, and eventually embark on a project of rural reconstruction. Many of the social workers trained by Shastri would go onto actively participate in the freedom struggle, and challenge the ruling elite.
Despite his dedication to social work, the call of politics was too hard to ignore and in 1937, he joined the Jaipur Rajya Praja Mandal, which was part of a larger pan-India movement in which people living in the princely states campaigned against feudatory rulers (and their British masters) as an attempt to claim their civil rights.
Among other things, the Praja Mandal movement in Rajasthan set up schools, encourage the use of khadi, supported local cottage industries and started agitations against untouchability.
As secretary and president of the Praja Mandal, Shastri led protests against the aristocrats of Jaipur and the British colonial administration. In 1939, was arrested for six months after carrying out a satyagraha in defence of civil liberties.
For his extensive contributions to the Praja Mandal movement in Rajasthan, he was appointed by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947 as the President of the All India States People Conference, a conglomeration of political movements in the princely states of the British Raj which dissolved on April 25, 1948, after all its constituents merged with the Congress.
It was also a platform which would play an integral role in the political integration of India, assisting the Indian Union in negotiating with hundreds of princely rulers.
In the same year, however, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly from Jaipur state, and despite his disagreements with princely states, he believed that all members of the Constituent Assembly, irrespective of caste and creed, must have equal rights to voice their views and concerns. Questions had been raised on whether princely states, who send their representative (not elected), should be allowed to vote on major legislative concerns.
“It is our misfortune that our rights have not been fully recognised, but if we are here by right, then no matter whether they be Rulers or Princes, or Heirs-apparent, whether they are nominated (by these rulers) or self-nominated or whether they are Prime Ministers, they are all equal. They are, in no way backwards, but are progressive, and they also include men of action. All have come here without any distinction of caste or creed, and their rights should be equal,” said Shastri, just two weeks after India declared Independence.
From March 27, 1948, to March 29, 1949, Shastri was the Prime Minister of Jaipur state—handpicked by the then Home Minister Sardar Patel. On March 30, he became the first CM of Rajasthan. He had the unenviable task of being the point man of the Indian Union in the integration of erstwhile princely states and at the same time ensure that a modern administration was running smoothly.
Although he oversaw a large segment of the integration movement in Rajasthan state, he wasn’t the choice of many other senior Congress leaders in the state, and there was news of much dissent. Until Patel had Shastri’s back, one could ignore these rumblings.
However, after Patel tragically passed away in 1950, Shastri was left on his own. At the start of 1951, he resigned from office and was elected to the second Lok Sabha.
In the meantime, Shastri and his wife Ratan founded the Banasthali Vidyapith in 1935, an all-girls residential school for girls, in memory of their daughter who had passed away when she was 12-years-old. Today, the university has more than 2000 female students in both their undergraduate and postgraduate programs—an enduring legacy indeed.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)