Saturday, December 22, 2012

Yusuf Meherally, for whom Bombay stood still

On 3 July, 1950 bus and tram services in what was then Bombay stopped for few minutes as the clock struck noon. The city was in a state of shock. The city that never stopped, stood still. Several educational institutes, factories and mills remained shut. One of the most potent symbols of the city's financial strength, Bombay Stock Exchange, though officially opened, witnessed no trading. It was a collective mourning and significantly bereft of any fear or force.

A day earlier, Yusuf Meherally, a selfless leader of the masses had passed away. The man who had coined two of the most popular slogans associated with the freedom struggle 'Simon Go Back' and 'Quit India' had roused the same passion in his death as his slogans. Years of struggle had taken its toll and a heart ailment that had struck him while in prison for the 1942 Quit India agitation had rendered him weak, though only physically and not in spirit. Just few days after his death, he was supposed to chair a meeting in Madras. Meherally was only 47 when he died.

Born in a prosperous family in Bombay on 3 September, 1903, his father Jaffer Meherally and his family were pro-British and the young Yusuf was looked upon as a renegade. He studied at Bharda High School and took interest in extra-curriculum activities. A firm believer in the power of youth, he was the main architect of the Bombay Youth League formed in 1928. In February 1928, the Youth League put up an admirably strong opposition in the wake of unprecedented lathi charge while opposing the Simon Commission. Meherally's slogan 'Simon Go Back' was on the lips of every nationalist in the city and country.     

Meherally believed in universal brotherhood cutting across race and nationalities. He belonged to that rare breed of leaders for whom personal gratification meant the well-being of fellow countrymen.  

At 4 pm on July 3, his coffin draped in the Tiranga started the last journey from Congress House to the Dongri Kabrastan. The four-mile journey was a spectacle but without the key ingredients that have now come to be associated and identified as a barometer of love, popularity, respect and reverence. No live coverage, studio discussions, or array of platitudes thrown across by anybody who was somebody.

It only had mourners in dignified silence and utmost respect, united in grief and a collective sense of irreplaceable loss. Beedi workers in faraway Thallessery in Kerala sported black badges and observed a hartal for their beloved leader.     

Active in the Congress, Meherally was among the key individuals who established and strengthened the Congress Socialist Party along with Jayaprakash Narayan, Achyut Patwardhan and Minoo Masani. This satiated his appetite for putting a forceful opposition to the British rule and at the same time working to address the needs and concerns of the working class.

He was a legendary figure for the hawkers, small-time traders, and clerical staff who toiled in commercial firms. He founded the Gumastha Mandal which fought for the rights of the working class. But this was not what his family wanted.     

Meherally did a BA in History and Economics from Elphinstone College. With the legal luminary H M Seervai and several other friends, Meherally did a penetrating study on the issue of university reforms. Speaking to students they covered a vast array of issues and came up with recommendations. Active in drama and debates, Meherally made the most of the extra-curriculum activities that Elphinstone College offered and was famous for. It was perhaps at Elphinstone College that he mastered the art of writing witty slogans and attractive posters – a quality he deployed to the maximum opposing the British rule. He then studied for a law degree at Government Law College.  

According to Madhu Dandavate, his biographer, the days when Meherally received his Bachelor degrees turned out to be of national significance. He received his BA in History and Economics on 8th Aug, 1925 – the same day in 1942 when the Quit India resolution was passed - and Bachelors in Law on 26th January 1929 – the day that is now marked as Republic Day.

Armed with two degrees, Meherally plunged into the freedom movement to the much consternation of his family members. His father had spoken to Mohammed Ali Jinnah to ensure his son’s law career treaded the right path. Meherally had different plans and perhaps the heavens too willed his way. Despite being a qualified lawyer, the High Court, just months after he received his law degree, refused to allow him to practise. This again was a rarity as several leaders were qualified lawyers but none was barred from appearing in courts.

Meherally was a magnet for the city’s and country’s youth. He was a hero for a whole generation of educated, and well-meaning men and women. Much of the people he inspired, nurtured and worked with would graduate to become professors, scholars and social workers. They looked up to him in awe and reverence due to his organisational abilities and clarity of ideas. As Aloo Dastur, former head of the department of Civics and Politics, Bombay University described him '24 carat gold and the likes of him are very difficult to meet these days'.

In 1938 he led the Indian delegation to the World Youth Congress in New York and also attended the World Cultural Conference in Mexico. Inspired by the vast literature on contemporary issues available in the West he decided to to plug the gap in India. Taking the lead, he authored 'Leaders of India' which ran into several editions. It was translated in Gujarati, Urdu and Hindi. It would be illustrative to share some excerpts from the Foreword he wrote: 

The rise of the pamphlet and the booklet as a powerful weapon for the spread of ideas has been truly remarkable. During my visits to these continents (US and Europe) I was greatly impressed by the part that such brochures play in moulding public opinion. In Europe and America there exists a wealth of topical literature that is in striking contrast to its scantiness in India. The Current Topics Series of Padma Publications is an attempt to meet this need. The idea is to publish every few months a booklet on a subject of topical or special interest having regard to present-day controversies and their bearing on the future. The series will not be restricted to political questions only. Every title will be published in a pleasing format, at a price within the reach of all.”

In 1942 when his name was nominated for the election to Bombay Mayoralty, he was lodged in Lahore jail. Vallabhbhai Patel was keen that Meherally stands for the election though a section of the Congress leadership was not in his favour. He was released from prison to take part in the elections and won comfortably becoming the youngest Mayor in the corporation’s history.

Meherally had a fine taste for art and culture reflecting his aristocratic upbringing and genuine love for India's diversity and rich heritage. In October 1949, he organised an exhibition of pictures and paintings tracing India’s freedom struggle beginning from 1857 in Bangalore. It had more than 200 pictures and was a much talked about event. It is said that he planned and designed a catalogue of another exhibition from his hospital bed. At Chetana, situated at Mumbai’s famed Kala Ghoda, Meherally organised an art and cultural event inviting personalities like Ustad Allauddin Khan and others.

Meherally’s motto was ‘Live Dangerously’ which he normally shared with friends and colleagues. On the morning of 17 December 1940 when the Britishers arrested him, the cotton markets, bullion exchange, stock market did ‘not transact any business’. It might be inferred that they must have remained close, but they were not. They were open for business, but chose not to do any!

For Meherally ‘Live Dangerously’ meant working to ensure a safe, secure, prosperous and healthy life for fellow citizens putting his own life at risk.


  1. Thanks Sachin. Glad you liked the piece.

  2. Very informative. Makes us remember our heritage.. Thank you Mr. Danish Khan. Then, one can picture India as one country, one nation: Undivided by race or religion....

  3. Hi Danish, wonderfully written. India needs more people like Meherally in the present situation the country is in. God bless you. Take care.