Rajendra Prasad (1884-1963) was an Indian nationalist and first president of the Republic of India. He was an important leader of the Indian National Congress and a dose coworker of Gandhi. Rajendra Prasad was born in Saran District, Bihar State, eastern India, on Dec. 3, 1884, into the Kayastha, or scribe, caste. A devout Hindu, he received his early education in Bihar and then attended Presidency College, Calcutta. The Swadeshi movement and particularly the Dawn Society influenced him to become a nationalist.
He continued his education, earned advanced degrees in law, and practiced law in Calcutta and then in Patna. When Mohandas Gandhi arrived in Bihar in 1917 to assist the peasants in Champaran, Prasad soon joined in this activity, becoming a lifelong disciple of Gandhi.
Following Gandhi’s lead, Prasad joined the Indian National Congress and participated in the noncooperation campaigns of 1919 and 1921-1922. Forsaking his law practice almost entirely, he became principal of the National College in Bihar, edited nationalist papers, and mobilized peasant support for the movement.
During the internal split in the Congress during the 1920s, he was a spokesman for the No-Changer group, which whole-heartedly supported Gandhi’s constructive program, particularly the production of indigenous cloth (or khadi) by hand spinning. In the 1930s Prasad, along with Vallabhbhai Patel and others, led the Gandhian Old Guard, which usually dominated the Congress organization. They opposed the Congress Socialists. Prasad was Congress president in 1934 and at Gandhi’s request again served as president after the serious internal struggle of 1939.
Prasad was a member of the Congress Parliamentary Board, which directed the election campaign of 1936-1937. While spending most of World War II in prison, he wrote his Autobiography in Hindi (trans. 1958) and a book opposing Moslem proposals for the partition of India, India Divided (1946).
After serving as minister for food and agriculture in the interim government, Prasad became president of the Constituent Assembly that eventually completed the constitution of the Republic of India in 1949. He was chosen interim president of his country and was elected the first president in May 1952. Five years later he was re-elected for a second term. During his presidency, he toured India and many countries of Asia.
In his speeches, he stressed national and communal unity, the need for a national language, the scarcity of food and the ways to increase food production, and the achievements of Indian culture. He often drew upon the words and achievements of his mentor, Gandhi, and gave importance to the need for more extensive educational programs, particularly the implementation of Gandhi’s basic education scheme.
The difficulties of the post-independence years were eased by the close cooperation between President Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Prasad died on February 28, 1963, in Pama.