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Jyoti Basu was an oddity. A gentleman communist who preferred to go with the philistines and commit major blunders, writes Sumit Mitra.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2010 23:03 IST

In theatre producer Bratya Basu’s much applauded Bengali political play, Ruddhasangeet (Muted Music), the life story of singer Debabrata Biswas who was a misfit in leftist circles, there is a scene in which Jyoti Basu appears as a character on stage. By his side sits Pramod Dasgupta, the Stalinist boss of the CPI(M) in Bengal, who held intellectuals as his enemy, much like his dictator hero.

The two are shown to preside over the in-house ‘trial’ of filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, a friend of the singer, leading to his expulsion. Basu leaves the stage with the words, “It is unfortunate that our party is unable to hold back educated and cultured people,” but then turns back in his usual abrupt manner to say, “of course I am no connoisseur of culture and such stuff.”

In real life, though, Basu was one of the vanishing tribes of Indian politicians who believed it was possible to fight for the issues that affected the masses, and, at the same time, be respectful of individual excellence. The feat was Herculean indeed in the context of Basu’s party, the CPI(M), which has, since its 1964 break-off with the parent CPI, founded by “gentlemen communists” educated in Britain in the pre-World War II years, become increasingly hostile to those capable of independent thinking. So, after the split, why did the ‘cultured’ Basu prefer to go with the philistines? The play attempts to provide the answer in the last line.

Culture is dispensable even for a cultured man, if that’s what the ‘party line’ is. Sure it defies logic. But communist parties do not follow logic. In the play, as in life, Basu was therefore an oddity. He loved freedom of ideas but more he loved to stay in the party which he thought was his life.

Basu was born in an aspiring middle-class family and went to schools run by Christian missionaries. Later on he graduated from Presidency College and could afford to spend four years in England till he was called to the bar from one of the temples of law.

His father, Nishikanta, learnt homoeopathy in the US and had a flourishing practice. Much like his contemporaries — Mohan Kumaramangalam, Nikhil Chakraborty, or Indrajit Gupta — Basu’s baptism in the communist faith took place in the ‘red’ England of the day. These boys (and a few ‘girls’, like Renu Chakravarty and Parvathi Kumaramangalam) returned home, stuck to their faith and tried their best to ‘identify’ with the proletariat. Basu was sent by the Indian party to work with railway gangmen and porters. Indrajit Gupta, who was in Cambridge

and was perhaps the most Anglicised of the lot, was sent to organise tramway employees. His university friend Eric Hobsbawm, the eminent historian, has reminisced in his memoir that, in that role, poor “Sunny” (Gupta’s pet name) “had as much to learn about the Calcutta working class as any foreigner”. To that generation of enlightened Indians, communism was self-discovery!

Basu started being a prisoner of his faith as he came in contact with Pramod Dasgupta, the Bengal party commissar, and eventually became a part of the system that Dasgupta had pieced together. After the CPI(M) came to power in Calcutta in 1977, it was Dasgupta who pulled the strings, and Basu was the puppet. It unleashed a philistinism that would have made a Kim Il-Sung blush, and inhumanity that could compete with Stalin’s if only the party’s Alimuddin Street office had enjoyed his absolute power. In the 30s, Basu had carried out the British Communist Party’s order to teach English to uneducated Indian sailors in East London’s docklands. After becoming West Bengal chief minister, the same Basu kowtowed to Dasgupta’s chauvinist whims as he ordered a ban on teaching English in the primary classes of State-funded schools.

The Dasgupta clique found in him an agent most pliable to its command, someone like Marshal Petain, who would help it commit hideous blunders: like allowing trade unions in uniformed services, recruiting party cadres as school teachers paid by the government and thus bankrupting the State exchequer, banning computers lest they kill the jobs of lazy and loyal babus, making universities subservient to the party, picking up rotten eggs as the next line of leaders (they are in power now), and generally turning the state into a nightmare for its most deserving citizens. Calcutta has since then acquired the reputation of being the best Indian metropolis to get away from.

Dasgupta died 28 years ago but his ghost haunted Basu all his life. It is the Marxist intolerance of non-mediocrity, embodied in Dasgupta, that prevented Basu from becoming Prime Minister in 1996. He called it later a “historic blunder”, but could not help losing his first and last chance to rise above the confines of his narrow and sectarian party, and address, among others, “the educated and cultured people”. He wrote an autobiography, but the party made sure it had nothing to say. He prompted an authorised biography, but did not have the courage to insist on it being an honest reflection of his feelings. When he handed over office in 2000 due to ill health, the moment, if not the excuse, was chosen by the junior incumbents of Alimuddin.

At 96, with his wife dead some years ago, the man lived a lonely life in a large but cold house at Salt Lake, a suburb too new for him, with nothing around him to which he could relate, except an odd-looking bust of Karl Marx sticking out in the middle of a nearby park. The world had changed but not his faith. In 1996, after his party’s “historic blunder”, and seven years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he told this correspondent that socialism would return as the “guiding philosophy” of the world “in 50 years” at most, but with a difference. “It will come with democracy”. It is this innocent optimism that will give Basu’s memory a longer lease than it would perhaps have otherwise deserved.

Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer