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Sunday, Dec 08, 2019

Harkishan Singh Surjeet - nationalist to Communist and then kingmaker

A hardcore nationalist who was known in his youth as "London Tod Singh", Harkishan Singh Surjeet took to politics in Punjab at a young age as a follower of iconic freedom fighter Bhagat Singh.

india Updated: Aug 01, 2008 14:47 IST
M.R. Narayan Swamy and Monobina Gupta
M.R. Narayan Swamy and Monobina Gupta

A hardcore nationalist who was known in his youth as "London Tod Singh" (one who breaks London, the centre of colonial power), Harkishan Singh Surjeet took to politics in Punjab at a young age as a follower of iconic freedom fighter Bhagat Singh.

For one who joined Bhagat Singh's Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1930 when he was barely 15, Surjeet embraced Communism as a 20-year-old, joining the Communist Party of India (CPI). Decades later, he was one of the nine who founded the breakaway Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).

By the time he came to head the CPI-M as its general secretary in 1992, an influential post he held until 2005 when failing health forced him into virtual retirement, Surjeet had come to know intimately virtually the entire brass of Indian politics.

His congenial attitude - and his ability to share a joke, a rarity among the comrades - helped him in no small measure to make friends with the leading lights of the Indian political establishment. So, when India entered the coalition era, Surjeet became the natural kingmaker.

Surjeet was all for Jyoti Basu, then the West Bengal chief minister, becoming India's prime minister in 1996 at the head of a centre-Left United Front government. But his stature was not enough to win the support of the more radical colleagues in the CPI-M who did not want to be in the government.

It was one of the few occasions when Surjeet lost out.

Born March 23, 1916 to a Bassi Jat Sikh family in Badala in Punjab's Jalandhar district, Surjeet began to worship Bhagat Singh at a young age. As a teenager, he hoisted the Indian tricolour on a court in Hoshiarpur, an action that led the police to open fire. He survived.

Arrested for his act of defiance, Surjeet declared his name as "London Tod Singh" (One who breaks London). The nationalist joined the CPI in 1936 when it was India's second most powerful party after only the Congress.

He founded the Kisan Sabha in Punjab and published two magazines, Dukhi Duniya (Sad World) and Chingari (Spark). He was arrested during the Second World War. He was the CPI secretary in Punjab when India became independent in 1947.

Surjeet went underground for four years soon after. He then made a mark organising peasants in Punjab, becoming the president of the then influential All India Kisan Sabha. He also worked in the Agricultural Workers Union.

In 1964, when the CPI split, owing partly to Sino-Soviet differences, Surjeet threw his lot with the CPI-M though the latter was shunned by Moscow and, later, by Beijing as well.

Surjeet came into his own when a weakening Congress resulted in the National Front coalition government of V P Singh - the country's first experiment in coalition politics - in 1989.

And with his party's stature growing with its vice like hold over West Bengal from 1977, Surjeet began to increasingly network with other parties with one single aim - to prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which he considered communal, from taking power in New Delhi.

It was another area where Surjeet did not succeed. Although he played a key role in isolating the BJP when it briefly took power in 1996 and then helped form the United Front governments of H D Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral, the BJP eventually bounced back.

Surjeet, however, remained the general secretary of the party, even amid criticism from many leftists that he had dented the ideological strength of the CPI-M by getting involved too closely with "bourgeois" parties. Much to the envy of many, Surjeeet often played the middleman between the Congress and other non-BJP parties.

Surjeet, who always sported a white turban, was also passionately opposed to the Sikh separatist campaign that bled Punjab for a decade until 1993. An atheist, he led a spartan lifestyle and always wore simple, even crumpled clothes. And although he considered Stalin an icon, he believed in electoral democracy. He was always ready to talk to the media - a rare trait among the comrades.

By 2005, Surjeet had begun to fade, physically and otherwise. Jyoti Basu had stepped down as the West Bengal chief minister. Surjeet, however, had one last laugh: the BJP, which took power nationally in 1998, was voted out in May 2004.

In 2005, the younger Prakash Karat succeeded Surjeet as the CPI-M general secretary.

Surjeet, however, remained a member of the party's politburo until 2008 when he became physically too weak to even attend meetings. The media quickly forgot him. When the CPI-M held its once-in-three-years congress in Coimbatore this year, the familiar figure of Surjeet was absent. It became clear to everyone that the man was on his last legs.