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Somnath Chatterjee: More of a Bengali gentleman than a Communist

A ‘bhadralok’ who combined the best traditions of the educated middle class and Left politics of West Bengal, say people.

india Updated: Aug 13, 2018 22:33 IST
Avijit Ghosal, Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Somnath Chatterjee,Somnath Chatterjee death,CPIM
Somnath Chatterjee, the veteran Communist leader, has died in Kolkata at 89. (Samir Jana/HT file photo)

He is more likely to be remembered in the rest of India for going against his party line to uphold the principles of the Lok Sabha Speaker’s post, but in his home state of West Bengal, Somnath Chatterjee will perhaps remain in the memory of most people as a typical representative of the ‘bhadralok’, who combined the best traditions of the educated middle class and Left politics.

“He kept up the tradition of politics symbolised by Hiren Mukherjee, Indrajit Gupta and Somnath Lahiri. I got him both as a leader and almost like a mentor. His departure signals the end of an era,” said Mohammad Salim, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member.

Chatterjee, who passed away in a Kolkata hospital on Monday, had two identities: a Bengali and a Communist. But on Monday, the constant reference was to “Somnath-da” and “Comrade” was rarely heard in Kolkata.

Opposition leaders pointed out that he was more of a Bengali gentleman than a doctrinaire Communist, and his going against his party line in 2008 and refusing to resign as the Lok Sabha speaker was the outcome of the former identity.

But going against the CPI(M) line was the second dramatic act of defiance of Chatterjee. He had started his political career by going against his father, Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, a famous advocate and a Hindu Mahasabha ideologue, by joining Left politics.

Like most Bengalis, he loved Tagore and football. The student of Mitra Institution, a school in Kolkata, who used to play football in childhood, became an enthusiastic fan later in life, going to watch the FIFA World Cup in 2002.

For 24 years (1985 to 2009) Chatterjee represented Bolpur constituency in the Lok Sabha and worked for the improvement of communications to Santiniketan. In 2001-02, he collaborated with his daughter Anushila Basu on an album of Tagore songs.

Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, recalled how, as an advocate, the Communist MP took up a case for Congress-leaning workers without any fee.

“In 1981, as a junior advocate, I approached him through one of my friends to appear as senior counsel in Calcutta High Court for a Dock Labour Union affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress. He readily agreed and appeared without taking any fees. We won the case,” said Ray.

It is this big heart that was recalled by all leaders from opposition parties who emphasised that his long association with the CPI(M) did not come in the way of warm relations with leaders of other parties.

On May 17, 2011, even before she was sworn in as the chief minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee paid Chatterjee a visit to his south Kolkata residence. On Monday, she wrote that she was “saddened at the passing away of Somnath-da”.

Ironically, it was the Trinamool Congress chief who had showed the country that Somnath ‘Invincible’ Chatterjee could be vanquished from Jadavpur, a constituency marked by middle-class Bengalis and refugees and considered an impregnable Left fortress. But that bitter fight in the 1984 did not embitter their relations. Nevertheless, after the alleged atrocities of Trinamool Congress supporters in the panchayat elections, Chatterjee, lashed out at the “murder of democracy”.

Also in April 2013, Chatterjee stepped down as chairman of the governing body of a women’s college in Bolpur town, unable to acquiesce to the authorities’ request to declare 26 failed students as ‘qualified’ to appear for their BA examination conducted by Burdwan University.

“Members of the students’ wing of the ruling Trinamool Congress put pressure on the college. I couldn’t agree to the decision, since it compromises the quality of education,” Chatterjee had said.

People such as cricket coach Sambaran Banerjee and entrepreneur Sukrity Mukherjee pointed out that with his rich baritone and portly frame, Chatterjee appeared more like the patriarch in a big Bengali family. Others said despite his popularity among a big section of the educated Bengalis, he did not join any other camp after his controversial expulsion from the CPI(M) in 2008.

“Above everything, Somnathda had a large heart. He loved me and I learnt from him a lot,” said former CPI(M) MP Ram Chandra Dome, who won Bolpur Lok Sabha constituency in 2009 after Chatterjee was expelled from the party.

Nine-time Lok Sabha MP from Bankura constituency Basudeb Acharia and former Communist Party of India MP Gurudas Dasgupta recalled Chatterjee’s impartiality as a speaker, and his attempt to use the House to serve the interests of the common people.

Others also praised his contribution and his stature.

“He was a speaker par excellence. His party did not do justice to him, but the love that the people of the state gave him was difficult to match,” said Subrata Mukherjee, panchayat minister in the Mamata Banerjee cabinet.

Mukherjee’s stand was borne out by CPI(M) leaders such as Sujan Chakraborty, who emphasised how he braved everything to uphold the neutrality of the speaker’s chair and CPI (M) West Bengal state secretary Suryakanta Mishra saying: “He did not have relation with the partyat the end. But that is of no consequence. Somnath-da was above party politics.”

First Published: Aug 13, 2018 13:51 IST