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The British roots of Bengal's red rule

The green sweep in West Bengal rings the curtain down on a long line of bhadralok Anglophile Bengali communists - men and women who were trained in Marxist ideology in British universities and who then imported their ideas into India.

world Updated: May 19, 2011 00:09 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

The green sweep in West Bengal rings the curtain down on a long line of bhadralok Anglophile Bengali communists - men and women who were trained in Marxist ideology in British universities and who then imported their ideas into India.

Leading them was Jyoti Basu, who spent four years and two months as a young man in London, studying at University College London (UCL) and training to be a barrister. After attending lectures by the socialist Harold Laski and meeting British communists, he returned, with intent to cause revolution. In 1977 he would launch Bengal's 34-year-spell of red rule.

In later years he became a frequent visitor to the British capital where he would shed his dhoti-kurta for a safari or lounge suit and enjoy an occasional drink of scotch. And long before he became chief minister, the culturally-minded Buddhadeb Bhattacharya told reporters on a visit to London that he wanted to soak up the city's famed theatre life.

Jyoti Basu, it seems, was enchanted by the idea of studying in London. "When I joined Presidency College," he told his biographer Surabhi Banerjee, "my mind was already half-turned toward England."

It was an "amazing experience" to be taught Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Henry IV by the college's esteemed professors of English, he said, adding: "I would count the days when I'd leave for England."

It was ironical in the extreme then, given his love of Shakespeare, that Basu stopped primary school English-language courses in West Bengal in 1983, arguing - with unknown evidence - that secondary school classes were enough to learn English.

This ban, enforced until 2000, threatened to snuff out one of urban West Bengal's biggest accomplishments - proficiency in English. According to a study by US-based Indian economists, it also led to a 68% reduction in wages.

There was one other odd thing that the English-educated communists did - they changed the English road names in Kolkata. Not a bad move that - for the comrades licking their wounds in the setting Eastern sun can now head for the sanctuaries of Karl Marx Sarani, Marx-Engels Bithi or Ho Chi Minh Sarani.

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