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September 16, 2018

A Marxist disowned by comrades


September 16, 2018

I met Somnath Chatterjee only once, for a couple of hours in Delhi in 1984. Comrade Somnath Chatterjee (Somjee), the only communist speaker of India’s Lok Sabha, died last month in Kolkata.

It was summer 1984. I was at Ajoy Bhavan – the office of the Communist Party of India (CPI), named after Ajoy Kumar Ghosh who was secretary general of the CPI from 1951 to 1962. I was in my early 20s and being hosted by Noor Zaheer (daughter of Sajjad Zaheer) and Manzoor Saeed (brother of Dastak founder Mansur Saeed and uncle of the actress, Sania Saeed).

Manzoor Saeed introduced me to Safdar Hashmi, political activist, actor and playwright. As a young student activist from Pakistan, I was interested in meeting some CPI-M comrades to get to know the differences between the CPI and CPI-M and why they didn’t merge, while having almost the same leftist agenda. Safdar Hashmi took me to Sitaram Yechuri, the president of the Student Federation of India (SFI), and Somnath Chatterjee, the CPI-M member in the Lok Sabha. Five years later in 1989, Safdar Hashmi was fatally attacked and killed while performing in a street play in Delhi; and Sitaram is now the general secretary of the CPI-M.

The SFI was the student wing of the CPI-M and Sitaram was in his early 30s. The discussion with him mostly revolved around student politics, but it was Somnath Chatterjee whose baritone voice and broken Hindi I could never forget. More than his voice, it was his deep interest in Pakistan’s politics that impressed me a lot. He was fully aware of the latest developments in Pakistan and showed his concern about the so-called Islamisation programme of General Ziaul Haq. I was shocked when Chatterjee told me that he had started his political life as a follower of the Hindu Mahasabha, a fundamentalist organisation.

Somjee’s father was a Mahasabha activist but under the influence of Jyoti Basu (1914 – 2010) he was gradually drawn towards communist and secular politics. Somjee was an inquisitive man and did not want to lose an opportunity to get to know Pakistan better through me, rather than let me ask about India. But before discussing Somjee, for the uninitiated let me give some background about the communist politics in India. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded in 1925. The first general secretary (GS) of the CPI was Puran Chand Joshi who led the party till 1947.

Under his leadership, the CPI had actively supported the Muslim League in its demand for a separate homeland for Muslims (Pakistan). After independence, the CPI went through an ideological crisis on the question of opposing or supporting the Indian National Congress. Those who opposed the Congress Party removed P C Joshi from the party leadership and appointed B T Ranadive as new general secretary of the CPI in 1948. Till 1951, the CPI followed a hard-line policy of leading armed struggles in various parts of India such as Kerala, Telangana, and Tripura. This policy was reportedly approved by Zhdanov, an ideologue of the Soviet Communist Party.

As a result, the Nehru government started a crackdown on communists and many leftist activists, leaders, and even writers were arrested. At the time, my father was a young communist activist in Bombay and witnessed all this. That was perhaps the only time that the Hindu Mahasabha supported the CPI and demanded that all communist leaders be released. This brief cooperation brought Somjee’s father close to Jyoti Basu, a respected Bengali communist who later served as West Bengal’s chief minister for 23 years (1977 – 2000). After Zhdanov’s death, the Soviet policy also changed toward the Congress Party and Nehru.

In 1951, after Zhdanov’s death, the CPI changed tack – apparently at the advice of the Soviet Communist Party. From 1951 to 1962, Ajoy Kumar Ghosh led the CPI with a more moderate, constitutional, and conciliatory line. In 1957, the CPI formed its first state government in Kerala, only to be dismissed within two years in 1959. By the 1960s, communist politics in the world was facing another crisis – the Sino-Soviet rift. After the death of Comrade Ghosh, a new post of chairman was created and S A Dange from Bombay became CPI chairman with Namboodiripad from Kerala as the new GS.

The CPI was divided into two in 1964; the breakaway Maoist faction called itself the CPI-Marxist and elected Comrade Sundarayya as its general secretary who held this position till 1978. The rump CPI elected C Rajeshwara Rao as the secretary general. Interestingly, now both parties were led by former leaders of the Telangana Peasant Movement. Since Jyoti Basu sided with the CPI-M, Somnath Chatterjee also joined it in 1968. Somjee contested the first Lok Sabha elections in 1971 and subsequently was elected 10 times. During the 1970s, the CPI supported Indira Gandhi whereas the CPI-M opposed her.

When I met Somjee he had already been elected to the Lok Sabha thrice – in 1971, 1977 and 1980. At that time he was planning to contest the next election in 1985. Incidentally, when I left Delhi, the very next day Indira Gandhi was murdered by her own Sikh guards. This resulted in mass riots and Sikhs being killed in Delhi. In the next elections, the sympathy vote won the Congress Party an absolute majority and even Somjee lost to a young Congress candidate Mamata Banerjee, who was hardly 30 years old in 1985.

The very next year he won a by-election for a different seat and gradually became a widely respected member of parliament. In the 1990s, two important events took place with regards to the communist politics in India. Namboodiripad who had been the GS of the CPI-M since 1978 resigned and Harkishan Singh Surjeet became the new GS of the party. The same year C Rajeshwara Rao of the CPI also resigned and Indrajit Gupta became its leader. In the 1996 general elections in India, when the BJP won the largest number of seats in Lok Sabha but fell short of majority, the opposition United Front had agreed to nominate a CPI-M leader, Jyoti Basu, as prime minister.

In a historic blunder, the CPI-M (led by H S Surjeet) decided not to lead the government and supported the United Front from outside. Hence the only chance when a communist could be elected prime minister of India was lost by the CPI-M. Both Somnath Chatterjee and Jyoti Basu criticised this decision but obeyed the party line. The CPI decided to join the government and its leader Indrajit Gupta became the first communist union home minister, from 1996 to 1998. When Gupta became home minister, A B Bardhan became the new secretary of the CPI and retained this position till 2012.

Somnath Chatterjee was elected the first communist speaker of Lok Sabha in 2004, thanks to the CPI-M’s 43 MPs and other UPA (United progressive Alliance) supporters. The Congress-led UPA government showed utmost respect to Somjee but then the CPI-M committed another historic misjudgement. In 2008, it asked Somjee to resign from speakership because the party had withdrawn support to the UPA government. Somjee refused to resign as he considered speakership to be above party politics. The CPI-M led by Prakash Karat expelled Somjee, after 40 years of service to the party. He quit politics at the end of his term as speaker in 2009.

When he died last month, the CPI-M wanted to wrap his body in the party flag but the family refused. All his funeral arrangements were supervised by Mamata Banerjee, the CM of West Bengal who had defeated Somjee in 1985. Such is the beauty of democracy.

The writer holds a PhD from theUniversity of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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