Tyagi was educated in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. He joined the British Indian Army and was posted in Persia but resigned after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (also known as the Amritsar Massacre), which took place on April 13, 1919. He was court martialled in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan (then a part of India but now in Pakistan) and externed from Baluchistan with all pay deposits forfeited. Returning home, Tyagi became a staunch follower of Mahatma Gandhi.
In the Independence movement
Mahavir Tyagi, who was active in the Kisan (peasant) movement, remained a lifelong member of the Indian National Congress. He was imprisoned by the British eleven times. In the course of the non-co-operation movement in 1921 Mahavir Tyagi was tried, inter alia, for sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code at Bulandshahr in the United Provinces, later known as Uttar Pradesh.( See Young India, October 13, 1921, and United Provinces Legislative Council Debates, November 5, 1921). In the course of the trial he was assaulted at the behest of the British Magistrate, W.E.J.Dobbs. (See Independent, October 9, 1921, Leader, October 10, 1921 and Young India, October 13, 1921) In a series of commentaries on the incident, Mahatma Gandhi condemned the assault on Tyagi. (See Young India, October 13, 20, 27, 1921 and November 10, 1921; Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 21,1966 (CWMG), pp 284–5, 310-1, 312-3, 344-6, 406-7). A mass protest meeting presided over by Sayed Hassan Berni, Vakil against the Magistrate-directed assault on Tyagi was held in Bulandshahr with more than 4000 persons attending. (Young India, October 13, 1921). Describing the assault as a "crime against the nation", Gandhi asked : "Could for instance the Lord Chief Justice of England assault a prisoner being tried before him and still retain his high office?" (Young India, October 20, 1921)The editor-poet from Lahore, Zafar Ali Khan wrote a verse condemning the assault on Mahavir Tyagi. The matter of the magistrate-directed assault on Tyagi figured in the United Provinces Legislative Council on Nov 4, 1921. Initially evasive answers from the Government regarding action taken against the magistrate led to further questioning of Government on Nov 5, 16, and 17, 1921 in the course of which the Government distanced itself from the magistrate's action. The case was then transferred to the District Magistrate of Meerut and Tyagi, on being convicted and sentenced to two years' imprisonment, was sent to Agra jail. Even after his release from prison, the seditious Tyagi would remain a marked man for the British regime which had by now identified him as a dangerous opponent. (See UP Legislative Council Debates, December 19, 1925) In Uttar Pradesh politics Tyagi was known as a "Rafian", that is, an associate of Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, the famous Indian nationalist Muslim. (See M. Hashim Kidwai, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, New Delhi, 1986, pp 215–216)
Mahavir Tyagi was close to, and had been a jail companion of, the leading Indian nationalist, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru's father. In the 1920s Tyagi helped resolve, with the help of Maulana Mohammad Ali, a misunderstanding that had arisen between Motilal Nehru and Jawaharlal Nehru (See Durga Das, India From Curzon to Nehru & After,London, 1969, pp 109–110). Mahavir Tyagi was a delegate to the All Parties National Convention held at Calcutta in December 1928-January 1929. In a statement issued along with Srinivas Iyengar, Jawaharlal Nehru and others, Tyagi supported the position that the Principles of the Constitution of India drafted by the Motilal Nehru Committee should have been based on independence rather than Dominion Status. [Selected Works of Motilal Nehru, Vol 6, New Delhi, 1995,pp. 607–609] As regards settlement of communal differences, the statement endorsed the recommendations of the Nehru Report as agreed to by the Lucknow All Parties Conference, held in August 1928. (Idem) In November 1930, two Nepali activists, Kharag Bahadur and Dhanpati Singh, were arrested at the Delhi Railway station with documents indicating the involvement of Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Mahavir Tyagi and some other Congress leaders in efforts to alienate the Gurkha soldiers from the British Indian Army.(See Kanchanmoy Mojumdar, Nepal and the Indian Nationalist Movement, pp 32–33). Tyagi was already in prison by this time, having been arrested a few months earlier for his participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930.
Political and Parliamentary career
Tyagi was President of the Dehra Dun District Congress Committee in 1931 (See Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 5, p. 211n) After Tyagi had served out his sentence for participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930, he was arrested again in Dehra Dun on January 17, 1932 with the resumption of Civil Disobedience and sentenced to two and a half years' imprisonment (Garhwali, Dehra Dun, January 23, 1932) In the decade before Indian independence he became a legislator in the United Provinces. In this capacity, he was, in 1939, a member of the Jaunsar-Bawar Enquiry Committee which heralded social and land reform in the tribal area of Jaunsar Bawar in Dehradun district of Uttar Pradesh (an area now forming part of Uttarakhand state). The committee recommended, inter alia, occupancy rights in land for tenants and the prohibition of forced labour. (A summary of the committee's recommendations is available in D N Majumdar, Himalayan Polyandry, Bombay,1962, pp 13–17) When arrested in the Individual Satyagraha in November 1940, Tyagi was taken to Dehra Dun Jail where Jawaharlal Nehru was already lodged. (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 11, p. 506) In 1942 Tyagi and S K D Paliwal were arrested under the Defence of India Rules on June 6, that is more than two months before the Quit India movement was actually launched; Rafi Ahmad Kidwai had been arrested even earlier on May 12. (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 12, p. 344) In a speech at Bombay on June 18, 1942, Nehru condemned these arrests as "putting a hindrance to civil defence work".(Idem) Three years later Nehru, on being transferred from Ahmadnagar Fort Prison to jails in the United Provinces in the summer of 1945, would see Tyagi again, then a political prisoner in Bareilly Central Jail. (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 13, p. 618)
While he himself adhered to Gandhian non-violence, Mahavir Tyagi had close contacts even among the "revolutionaries", that is those who were not opposed to using violent means to overthrow the imperial state. These included Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Prem Kishan Khanna and Vishnu Sharan Dublish.
When riots broke out in the Indian subcontinent after its partition in 1947, Tyagi, taking inspiration from Gandhi, staked his own life to help save Muslims in his home state and to bring peace.(Choudhry Khaliquzzaman,Pathway To Pakistan, Lahore,1961, p. 400 ; see also Ansar Harvani, Before Freedom and After, New Delhi, 1989, p. 100 and Qazi Jalil Abbasi's account in Bipan Chandra, The Epic Struggle, New Delhi, 1992, p. 60) For a further account of how Mahavir Tyagi took over the local administration at this time after he found it unable to control the situation and restore public order, see Ajit Prasad Jain, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai : A Memoir of his Life and Times, Bombay, 1965, pp 73–74.
Tyagi's political activities extended also to the Tehri Garhwal region. He had taken a keen interest in the movement for democratic rights there and played a prominent role also in support of the movement in Tehri State for merger with independent India.( See, for example, Ajay Singh Rawat, Garhwal Himalayas : A Historical Survey, New Delhi,1983,p. 205)
Mahavir Tyagi was a member of the Constituent Assembly of India. In this capacity he is known especially for his strong stand against unsafeguarded Preventive Detention laws and against suspension of fundamental rights in emergency situations.
On India's becoming a Republic in 1950, Tyagi remained a member of the Provisional Parliament (1950–52),and the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, that is, the First, Second and Third Lok Sabha (1952–67). Tyagi was Minister for Revenue & Expenditure in the Nehru Council of Ministers (1951–53). In this capacity he introduced the First Voluntary Disclosure Scheme, known as the Tyagi Scheme, primarily, as he put it, to bring into the open incomes which had not been revealed to the alien government prior to independence. While in the Ministry of Finance, Tyagi earned a reputation as a strict economiser.
Later Mahavir Tyagi became Minister for Defence Organisation (1953–57).General B M Kaul records in his memoirs that as Minister of Defence Organisation, Tyagi opposed policy proposals involving draconian measures in the tribal areas of India's North-East.( See B M Kaul, The Untold Story, New Delhi, 1967, p. 162 ) Tyagi also gave instructions for recruitment of Muslims in large numbers in the Indian Army. The proportion of Muslims in the Army had fallen after Partition of India in 1947.
Known for his independence, Tyagi opposed, even while he was a minister, the reorganisation of Indian states on a linguistic basis which was, however, ultimately carried out in 1956.(Indian Express, Madras, November 24, 1955) He welcomed the victory of the Communist Party of India in Kerala state in the General Elections of 1957 (Leader, Allahabad, April 2, 1957) Later Tyagi opposed the decision to dismiss the Communist government led by E M S Namboodiripad in Kerala at the end of the fifties, saying that this would establish a wrong precedent. A political scientist records in a significant study that Tyagi warned at the time "that the Congress Party was 'digging its own grave' by aligning with caste and communal forces". (B D. Dua, Presidential Rule in India 1950-1974 : A Study in Crisis Politics, New Delhi, 1979, p. 112) Tyagi sought also to inculcate independence in others : He was critical of the tendency among political workers obsequiously to touch their leaders' feet and lashed out also at some senior bureaucrats who, he observed, had started touching ministers' feet. (Touching of Leaders' Feet : Tyagi Deplores Tendency, The Tribune, Ambala, June 26, 1959)
Tyagi was Chairman of the Direct Taxes Administration Enquiry Committee (1958–59) and in that capacity paved the way, along with the Law Commission, for the Income Tax Act, 1961.
Aksai Chin debate
Tyagi famously criticized Nehru's statement in the Indian Parliament in the prelude to the Sino-Indian War: Nehru commented that "Not a blade of grass grows in Aksai Chin", attempting to explain that Aksai Chin was a barren, inhospitable land and the nation had lost little by its occupation by China. Tyagi retorted, pointing to his own bald head: "Nothing grows here ..should it be cut off or given away to somebody else?". A tense situation that had been developing in the House on the subject of the border conflict was averted as the House dissolved in laughter in which Nehru also joined. Tyagi continued to enjoy an affectionate relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru. He served as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament (1962–64).
In April 1964, a month before Nehru's death, Tyagi rejoined the Government as Cabinet Minister in charge of Rehabilitation. In the General Elections of 1967 which saw a popular backlash against the Congress Party, Tyagi lost to an independent candidate backed by an anti-Congress combination of parties. In 1968 he became the Chairman of the Fifth Finance Commission.After the split in the Congress in 1969, Tyagi stayed with the Congress(O), the organisational wing of the party. In 1970 he was elected to the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, from Uttar Pradesh and led the Congress(O) in the House till he retired in 1976. Tyagi's being in the Congress(O) did not prevent him from being critical of the movement led by Jaya Prakash Narayan in 1974-75. He was equally critical of the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975.
Mahavir Tyagi died in New Delhi on May 22, 1980. A popular figure, he had friends across political parties and was widely admired for his integrity, outspokenness, ready wit and sense of humour.
Prior to independence, Mahavir Tyagi had written a booklet on proportional representation. His memoirs in Hindustani were published in the 1960s in two volumes : (i) Ve Kranti Ke Din and (ii) Meri Kaun Sunega. These volumes have now been combined in one and, along with some other unpublished articles by Tyagi, have been published under the title Azadi Ka Andolan: Hanste Huye Aansu (Kitab Ghar, 24 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, Delhi).
- The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 21, Publications Division, Government of India, New Delhi, 1966
- Selected Works of Motilal Nehru, Vol 6, Ravinder Kumar and Hari Dev Sharma (eds.), Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1995
- India From Curzon to Nehru And After, Durga Das, Collins, London, 1969
- Nepal and the Indian Nationalist Movement, Kanchanmoy Mojumdar, Firma K L Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta, 1975
- Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vols 5, 11, 12, and 13, S. Gopal (Gen. Ed.), Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1973–1980
- Pathway to Pakistan, Choudhry Khaliquzzaman, Longmans, Lahore, 1961
- Before Freedom And After, Ansar Harvani, Gian Publishing House, New Delhi, 1989
- The Epic Struggle, Bipan Chandra, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1992
- Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, Dr. M. Hashim Kidwai (Publications Division, Government of India, New Delhi), 1986
- Rafi Ahmad Kidwai : A Memoir of His Life and Times, Ajit Prasad Jain, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1965
- Himalayan Polyandry : Structure, Functioning and Culture Change , D. N. Majumdar, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1962
- Garhwal Himalayas : A Historical Survey, Ajay S. Rawat, Eastern Book Linkers, New Delhi,1983
- Presidential Rule in India 1950-1974 : A Study in Crisis Politics, B.D.Dua, S.Chand & Company, New Delhi, 1979
- Distinguished Acquaintances, (Vol 2), N G Ranga, Desi Book Distributors, Vijayawada, 1976
- The Untold Story, Gen B.M. Kaul, Allied Publishers, New Delhi, 1967