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Kanjibhai Desai: A Selfless Servant of the People

“Until and unless discipline is not made an indivisible part practices; discipline is not followed in all walks of life, there is no possibility of achievement in life…The one who wants success and desires to achieve a goal in life, he needs to abide himself by discipline. In the absence of discipline forwarding steps of man suddenly get slackness; his wish to serve and spirit of duty turn up to the state of dearth.” Kanjibhai Desai

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Kanhaiyalal Desai, popularly known as Kanjibhai Desai, was one among those most leading personalities of Gujarat who sacrificed their all for the cause of freedom of India in the Gandhian era of national liberation movement. He was born in a prosperous Nagar Brahmin Zamindar family of Surat on January 19, 1886. His father Nanabhai Ratilal Desai was a Zamindar of Olpad Taluka of the District of Surat. A nationalist to the core he had a friendly attitude towards his tenants while his mother Jugalben was an ideal God-fearing, but hardworking housewife. Kanjibhai was filled by these parental qualities.

Soon after passing the matriculation from the Surat High School in 1904 Kanjibhai started studying the law as he desired to practice in the High Court of Bombay. But, due to illness of his parents –mother and father both– he had to give up his studies to help to his father in Zamindari work.

It was the time when Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak had given to his compatriots a clarion call for freedom. He, along with other stalwarts like Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal, was preparing for the Swadeshi Movement. Kanjibhai Desai could not remain untouched and unaffected by such a call. He was only 18 then, but decided to enter public life through social service and not to join politics directly. However, in the same year he participated in the Mumbai session of the Indian National Congress and extended full support to the Swadeshi Moment in the ensuing year. He was one of the members of the reception committee of the historical Surat session of the Congress in 1907, which was held under the Presidentship of Sir Phirozeshah Mehta.

Kanjibhai Desai extended full support to all national activities from time-to time between 1907 and 1927 including actively participating in the Home Rule League Movement [1915-6] and the Non-Cooperation Movement, started by Gandhiji in 1920. Yet his life was fully changed during the Bardoli Kisan Satyagraha, started by Vallabhbhai Patel in 1928. Kanjibhai not only actively participated in this historical movement, but played a vital role in planning strategies and their implementation for the success of the Satyagraha. From there he emerged as a leading public figure of Gujarat. With a firm determination he stayed in the forefront during Civil Disobedience Movement [1930], Individual Satyagraha [194-41] and Quit India Movement [1942]. He was arrested every time he participated in nationalistic activities and imprisoned for months and years. Not only this, by following the footsteps of the father his daughter Rohiniben and both sons Pramodbahi and Hitendrabhai also joined non-violent battle for freedom under the leadership of the Mahatma. Kanjibhai Desai used to say, “The English Rule in India is the extreme of injustice. Never bow before injustice; for seeking justice be ready always to bear any kind of atrocity…” 

After freedom, as the first Chairman of the Gujarat State Samaj Sikshan Samiti [1947-61], Kanjibhai Desai started a number of projects related to adult and women-education; through this he also started work to propagate Khadi and prohibition in villages. Moreover, with the sole purpose of self-reliance for women he founded the Surat Mahila Sahakari Udyoga Mandir in 1948.

He created history by converting lease of lands into permanent ownership to his tenants and, thus, set an example to be followed by other indigenous Zamindars all over India. For this, a title of Socialist Zamindar was bestowed on him.

Kanjibhai Desai was elected as a member to the Constituent Assembly [1946-50], the Interim Parliament [1950-2] and the first Lok Sabha [1952-7]. Moreover, succeeding Sardar Patel he served the Gujarat Prantik Congress Committee as its third President till the day of his passing away on December 26, 1961. As a parliamentarian and provincial party chief his work for the masses was, and still is, incomparable and a source of inspiration particularly for the youth. His contribution in completion of the two known power projects of Gujarat namely Kakrapara and Ukai will be remembered for a long.

Disciplines, service to the poor and being honest in public life were the chief qualities of his personality. Morarjibhai Desai in his rich tribute to Kanjibhai Desai had said, “He sacrificed his all in the service of the people. For the cause of the nation he not only left all his comforts, but even from time-to-time sold out his land… Kanjibhai was a humble and matchless servant of the people and I have not found any other in my life, who could be compared to him in this regard…”               

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