Balwant Rai Gopalji Mehta was born on 19 February 1899, in Bhavnagar district of present-day Gujarat. Not much is known of his early education, except that he went to Samaldas College, Bhavnagar and later Gujarat College, Ahmedabad to pursue a bachelor’s degree. But he never got the degree due to his unwavering decision to not accept anything from the colonial government. Despite the lack of a degree, Mehta would go onto have a career in journalism.
Role in India’s Independence Movement
Since the 1920s, Mehta was active in Congress politics. He took part in both the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920) and the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-32), and was imprisoned close to eight times over a period of seven years. He was among the prominent Gujarati activists who came together in the 1928 Bardoli Satyagraha to protest against the unjust raising of taxes in the Bombay Presidency. He also participated in the Quit India Movement and had to spend three years in jail.
Mehta’s political life was deeply enmeshed in the politics of the Princely States. In 1928 he became General Secretary of the All-India States Peoples Conference, which aimed to promote and bring together the progressive political movements in the Princely States. He remained General Secretary until 1935, and became Vice-President of the Conference in 1946. For a brief period in 1943, Mehta was Prime Minister of Bhavnagar State. He was also Secretary and President of the Bhavnagar Praja Parishad between 1946-48.
Apart from his party commitments, Mehta was also a life member of Lala Lajpat Rai’s Servants of the People Society since 1927. The society aimed to created social workers modelled on missionaries who would be committed to serving India. Eventually, he would serve as the Vice-President of the Society in 1957.
Contribution to Constitution Making
Mehta was elected to the Constituent Assembly from the Princely State of Saurashtra on a Congress Party ticket. He did not actively take part in the Constituent Assembly proceedings.
In 1948 Bhavnagar acceded to the Indian Union and became a part of the Saurashtra State. Mehta’s role in the politics of the region gradually saw him rise within Congress. In 1950, he was elected Secretary of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee for a period of two years. During Nehru’s Congress Presidency in 1954, Mehta was elected General Secretary of Congress for a one-year term.
Mehta was a member of the Saurashtra Legislative Assembly between 1949-52. He was Deputy Chief Minister between 1948-50. He was also an elected member of the First Lok Sabha between 1952-57. He would win a second term in 1962.
By then there was a growing power struggle within the Gujarat Congress, particularly between Congress leaders from mainland Gujarat and those from the ex-Princely State of Saurashtra. As someone who had been deeply involved in all-India Congress politics for a long time, Mehta was acceptable to most. Thus, in 1963, he became the Chief Minister of Gujarat.
Mehta is most known for his contributions to the country’s path to democratic decentralization and the establishment of the Panchayati Raj institutions. In 1957, he headed a Central Committee set up to explore the workings of the Community Development Projects and the National Extension Service which were Government ventures to tackle problems at the level of local administration. The Committee under Mehta’s leadership suggested a three-tier Panchayati Raj system that would eventually take shape across India. He was also Chairman of the Lok Sabha’s Estimates Committee between 1955-57.
Mehta’s life was cut short when the aircraft carrying him was accidentally shot down by a Pakistan Air Force pilot during the Indo-Pak war of 1965.
On 17 February 2000, the Government of India released a postage stamp commemorating Mehta.