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Jyoti Basu: End of an era

Print edition : Feb 12, 2010 T+T-
June 21, 1977: Taking the oath of office as Chief Minister for the first time. Basu remained Chief Minister for 23 years, until November 6, 2000.-PICTURES: MINATI CHOWDHURY

June 21, 1977: Taking the oath of office as Chief Minister for the first time. Basu remained Chief Minister for 23 years, until November 6, 2000.-PICTURES: MINATI CHOWDHURY

Jyoti Basu was a colossus that refused to be shackled by regional politics, and rose to be a national leader of international stature.
THERE is nothing more valuable in life than the love of the people. We are always ready to sacrifice our lives for a greater cause.When the time comes, we should not be found wanting. Our lives should not be spent idling away our time. There should not be any regrets in having led a life of disuse. That has always been my bottom line.

- Jyoti Basu, in Memoirs: A Political Autobiography, translated from the Bengali, Jatadur Mone Pore (As Far As I Can Remember), by Abhijit Dasgupta.

FOR 17 days from January 1, as Jyoti Basu lay fighting for his life in a private nursing home in Kolkata and a steady stream of visitors ranging from political heads to movie stars dropped in to express their concern for his health and wish him a quick recovery, there remained outside the nursing home a silent mass of humanity. They were there from morning until night, their numbers never dwindling, united in hope and prayer for their leader. Their love is the true legacy of Jyoti Basus life; their devotion to him, the fruits of his labour; their grief at his passing away and their memory of him, his key to the door of immortality through which very few people have been given the right of passage.

All other accolades and honour bestowed on Jyoti Basu in his lifetime and after his death the observance of military funeral rites, the congregation of national and international leaders, the countless flower wreaths from heads of industries paled into insignificance next to the sea of humanity that took to the streets spontaneously and lined up for what seemed like miles outside the gates of the State Assembly building just to file in and salute their hero.

Many travelled overnight from districts far and near for a final glimpse of the man who, in many ways, defined the more noble qualities of Bengal tolerance, kindness, secularism and decency.

The veteran Marxist leaders passing away on January 17, at the age of 95, from septicaemia owing to pneumonia, which led to multi-organ failure, marked the end of an era not just in West Bengals politics but also in the history of the nation. In a political career that spanned more than 50 years, of which he spent an unprecedented 23 continuous years as the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu was a colossus that refused to be shackled by regional politics, and rose to be a national leader of international stature. A pioneer in coalition politics and its most successful practitioner, even in death Jyoti Basu emerged as a great unifying factor of Indian politics, as leaders of all parties rose above their differences to unite in paying homage to the man.

I turned to him for his sagacious advice on all matters, whether they related to West Bengal or to issues of national importance, wrote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his condolence message to Jyoti Basus son Chandan Basu. President Pratibha Patil said: In his passing away the nation has lost a veteran and an eminent public figure.

He was a towering figure in our national life, whose noble vision, superb judgment and depth of experience we all valued greatly, wrote Congress president Sonia Gandhi, in her condolence message.

For the Communist Party of India (Marxist) of which Jyoti Basu was one of the founding fathers and the Left movement in the country, his absence has created a void that can perhaps never be filled. CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat said that with the passing of Jyoti Basu an era has passed. He noted: An ardent communist, he was one of the few political leaders in independent India who actually deepened democracy, strengthened secularism and brought the working people to the centre stage of Indian politics. Although he died at the age of 95, he leaves us bereft because there will be none like Jyoti Basu again.

Jyoti Basus successor as Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, said: He was the embodiment of the Left Front movement in the country. He was a darling of the working class and the peasantry. His administrative ability was beyond dispute. He never hesitated to take the right decision at the right moment. Above all, he was a man of indomitable courage. I have so many memories of him, which serve as bright sparks in todays dark situation.

Born on July 8, 1914 at 43/1 Harrison Road (later renamed Mahatma Gandhi Road) in Kolkata to Nishikanta Basu and Hemlata Basu, Jyoti Basu came from a relatively affluent family. His father was a well-known doctor and his paternal uncles were all well-settled in life; one of his elder uncles, Nalinikanta Basu, was a High Court judge in colonial days.

As a child Jyoti Basu had the unique experience of studying in a girls school. When he was six years old, he was admitted to Loreto Kindergarten at Dharamtala in Kolkata. In fact, for a whole year he was the only boy in the girls school, until he got admission in St Xaviers School.

Though there was not even a whiff of politics, as he himself put it, in his family, there was always an underlying respect and sympathy for freedom fighters. In 1930, when Jyoti Basu was in the eighth standard, the Chittagong Armoury Raid took place, fuelling patriotic fervour. When news of the event reached his school, the authorities issued a leaflet condemning the raid; a teenaged Jyoti Basu raised his voice in protest. My stand was simple; the raid had been organised for the good of the nation. Why should the school authorities issue a leaflet like this? he wrote in his memoirs.

After passing his Senior Cambridge Examinations and Intermediate from St Xaviers School and College respectively, Jyoti Basu enrolled in Presidency College from where he passed out with Honours in English in 1935. He then set off for the United Kingdom to become a barrister as per his familys wishes. While studying law he appeared, unsuccessfully, for the Indian Civil Service examination, and got increasingly drawn into international politics ambient on the London scene in those days.

Through young Indian communists like Bhupesh Gupta and Snehangshu Acharya, who were also in England then, Jyoti Basu met some of Britains leading communist leaders, including Ben Bradley, Harry Politt, and Rajani Palme Dutt and attended Marxist study circles. He was also greatly influenced by the anti-fascist lectures of Harold Laski.

He joined the India League under the leadership of V.K. Krishna Menon and later formed the London Majlis, of which he was the first secretary. Apart from generating public opinion for the cause of Indian independence and collecting subscriptions, one of the main functions of the Majlis was to host receptions for Indian nationalist leaders visiting England. In that capacity Jyoti Basu came in contact with Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Vijayalaxmi Pandit and others. It was during this period that he decided to dedicate his life to the cause of communism.

Towards the end of 1939, Jyoti Basu set sail for India without even waiting to know the results of the final law examination he had appeared for; of course, he passed. On reaching Calcutta in early 1940, he got in touch with the leaders of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Though he got himself enrolled as a barrister at the Calcutta High Court, rather than taking up practice he engaged himself as a whole-timer with the party.

His primary task was to maintain links with the leaders who had gone underground, provide them shelter, organise secret meetings and collect subscription. Jyoti Basu also got married around this time, but his wife, Basanti, died soon after. Though the party came under heavy criticism for its opposition to the Quit India Movement in 1942, he persisted in his duties unperturbed and threw himself into the task of organising relief work during the famine that ravaged Bengal in 1943.

At the directive of the party, Jyoti Basu began working with the labour force of the Bengal Nagpur Railway and was instrumental in establishing the B.N. Railway Workers Union in 1944, of which he was the general secretary. The party then nominated him as its candidate from the Railway constituency for the Legislative Assembly in 1946; his opponent was Humayun Kabir, the president of the Railways Employees Association. Jyoti Basu won in spite of the Congress throwing its whole weight behind Kabir and getting stalwarts like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to campaign for him.

The same year, when communal riots broke out in the city known in history as the Great Calcutta Killing the CPI played a major role in the restoration of peace by organising innumerable peace committees. Jyoti Basu and Bhupesh Gupta even met Mahatma Gandhi, who was then in Calcutta, and were advised to form an all-party central peace committee and organise an all-party unity procession. This, however, did not take place owing to the lack of unanimity among all parties in support of the idea. At that time, it was the Muslim League under the leadership of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy that was in power in Bengal.

After Partition, with the departure of Suhrawardy to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the Congress took over power in the State, with Dr Prafulla Chandra Ghosh taking charge as the first Chief Minister of Bengal in independent India. In the same year, the West Bengal Special Powers Bill, which later came to be known as the West Bengal Security Act, was placed in the Assembly. Jyoti Basu opposed it on the floor of the Assembly on the grounds that the draconian Bill gave unlimited powers to the bureaucracy and the police to check public agitations.

In March 1948, the West Bengal unit of the CPI was banned and Jyoti Basu was arrested and imprisoned for three months. In December 1948, he got married to Kamal Basu and had to go into hiding soon after. With Communist leaders being targeted for arrest, he kept changing his residence, and for a while lived with Indrajit Gupta, who went on to become the Union Home Minister and is remembered as a great parliamentarian.

On January 27, 1950, the day after the Constitution was adopted, a Calcutta High Court ruling lifted the ban on the Communist Party in Bengal. In 1951, when publication of the party organ Swadhinata was resumed, Jyoti Basu became the president of its editorial board.

The 1952 elections saw the establishment of a united anti-Congress opposition front. The Forward Bloc, the Socialist Republican Party, the Bolshevik Party of India and others came together to form the United Socialist Organisation (USO), which then forged an alliance with the CPI. The alliance came out with a statement that its constituents would contest together and have seat adjustments. The signatories to the statement were Jyoti Basu, representing the CPI, and Ashok Ghosh, representing the USO. The party directed Jyoti Basu to contest the Baranagar Assembly seat. Though it was a new area for Jyoti Basu, he defeated his Congress rival, Harendranath Chowdhury, by 5,429 votes. The CPI won 28 of the 71 seats it contested in the 238-member Assembly, and Jyoti Basu was chosen unanimously as the leader of the party in the Legislature. In September that year he became a father with the birth of his son Chandan.

The next few years saw the Bengal unit of the CPI growing from strength to strength. In 1953, the total number of full-fledged members stood at 5,859 and by the end of 1956, it had increased to 8,727. In this period Jyoti Basu found himself in the thick of a series of agitations led by the party on issues such as the tram fare hike in 1953 and the demands of the All India Teachers Cell in 1954, and opposing the proposed merger of West Bengal and Bihar in 1956. In 1953, he was elected a member of the new Central Committee during the party congress held in Madurai.

In the 1957 Assembly elections, too, Basu contested from Baranagar and defeated the Congress Kanailal Dhar by 9,415 votes. The strength of the CPI in the Assembly increased from 28 in the previous election to 46, excluding the five winning Independents backed by the party. In 1952, the Communists were denied the status of the main Opposition party in the Assembly on flimsy technical grounds, but this time their strength could not be ignored and Jyoti Basu was formally made the Leader of the Opposition.

In 1959, when the movement organised by the CPI against the food crisis in the State was at its peak, Left leaders and workers were rounded up by the police and thrown into prison. The party instructed Jyoti Basu, who was one of the leading figures in the movement, to go into hiding and continue to lead the movement.

In the 1962 elections, Jyoti Basu was re-elected from Baranagar, defeating the Congress Dhirendranath Chatterjee by 13,412 votes. Meanwhile, Sino-Indian relations had reached a flashpoint, and a section of the CPI, including Jyoti Basu, felt that talks, rather than war, would be the only solution to the crisis. Jyoti Basus enemies took no time to label them anti-national. He later remembered that someone had even set up a shop at Kalighat in South Calcutta, selling effigies of him and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai for people to burn. Subsequently, Jyoti Basu and other top Communist leaders, including Pramode Dasgupta and Muzaffar Ahmad, were put behind bars. Though the war ended with the Chinese declaring a ceasefire in November 1962, Jyoti Basu and his comrades were not released until December 1963. It was in prison that he got news of his fathers death.

The Sino-Indian war brought to the fore certain contradictions simmering within the party, which Jyoti Basu succinctly referred to as the National Front and the Democratic Front. Jyoti Basu belonged to the latter. He listed three major areas of disagreement the character of the Indian state and the ruling Congress party, the approach to the ongoing ideological debate between the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics and China, and, lastly, the stand to be taken on the border dispute which led to the Sino-Indian war (Source: Dr Biplab Dasguptas Jyoti Babur Shangey, or With Jyoti Basu).

The inevitable split of the CPI took place in 1964. Jyoti Basu was one of the founder-members of the CPI(M) and a member of the partys first Polit Bureau of nine members. The other members were E.M.S. Namboodiripad, P. Sundarayya, Pramode Dasgupta, M. Basavapunnaiah, A.K. Gopalan, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, B.T. Ranadive and P. Ramamurti. At the time of his passing away, he was the sole survivor of the founding fathers of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau. In 1965, Peoples Democracy, the organ of the CPI(M), came into being with Jyoti Basu as its first editor.

In 1967, the Congress, which was considered almost invincible in electoral battles, lost at the hustings in several important States in northern and eastern India, including West Bengal, where it lost absolute majority by 14 seats. The two anti-Congress groups one led by the CPI(M) and the other comprising the Bangla Congress and the CPI formed the government with Ajoy Mukherjee as Chief Minister and Jyoti Basu as Deputy Chief Minister in charge of Finance.

Though the government lasted only around eight months, it took a number of positive steps such as the nationalisation of the tram company, the repeal of the draconian West Bengal Security Act and the decision to direct the police not to take a partisan stand in favour of managements in labour-management disputes.

Dissensions within the coalition and the machinations of the Opposition brought an early end to the government, and Presidents Rule was imposed. The next elections, in 1969, were fought by one united coalition, instead of two groups, against the Congress. The result was a spectacular success for the CPI(M), which raised its own tally from 43 to 80, while the Congress figure came down from 123 to 55.

Jyoti Basu became Deputy Chief Minister once again, with the portfolios of General Administration, Home and Police. However, this government lasted only 13 months. But it took a number of important decisions primarily in the field of land reforms and included the redistribution of ceiling-surplus land of big landholders among the landless. It also set up a pay commission for State government employees. As Jyoti Basu explained later, the class interest between the Bangla Congress (which was a breakaway group of the Congress) and the Communists was irreconcilably antithetical, and the resulting frictions sealed the governments fate. The period thereafter saw the outbreak of the naxalite movement in various parts of the State; and Jyoti Basu had to keep his flock together and their morale intact when the Congress and the naxalites joined hands to liquidate CPI(M) cadre.

The 1971 elections witnessed a unique contest in Baranagar constituency between the Deputy Chief Minister and the Chief Minister of the previous two governments. While Jyoti Basu beat Ajoy Mukherjee convincingly, the CPI(M) emerged as the single-largest party, winning 111 seats. The Congress won 105 seats. An alliance between the Bangla Congress, the Congress, the Forward Bloc and the CPI prevented the CPI(M)-led alliance from forming the government and once again Presidents Rule was imposed in the State. The Assembly elections in 1972 were allegedly rigged and were won by the Congress. This round also saw the first and only electoral defeat of Jyoti Basu, who contested again from Baranagar. The CPI(M) boycotted the proceedings of the Assembly throughout its tenure.

Out of power, Jyoti Basu spent the next five years consolidating and spreading the organisation throughout the State. In the next elections, in 1977 after the Emergency, the CPI(M) returned stronger than ever. On the morning of June 21, 1977, the first Left Front government was sworn in with Jyoti Basu as Chief Minister. His new constituency was Satgachia, which he represented until he retired from electoral politics in 2000 after heading the government for a record 23 years and winning Assembly elections five consecutive times. The CPI(M)-led Left Front government continues in power today after winning its seventh consecutive victory in 2006.

The most significant achievements of the Left Front government were land reforms, which included the distribution of ceiling-surplus land among the poor peasantry, registration of sharecroppers through Operation Barga, guarantee of minimum wage to agricultural labourers, and the establishment of a three-tier panchayati system in which the rural poor found their voice and power.

His government also set up a dole for the unemployed and widows. Our efforts are not aimed at making the minuscule rich richer. We want to reach the fruits of our successes to the common man, Jyoti Basu once said. He was also, perhaps, the first Chief Minister who recognised the right of police personnel to form unions. His remarkable foresight also led to the establishment of a separate department for youth services in his Cabinet.

One thorn on the side of the State government has been the separatist movement for Gorkhaland in the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling district in North Bengal. The movement, initiated by Subash Ghising, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) supremo, was originally secessionist in nature, but once again a patient and sagacious approach quelled the violence and resulted in a satisfactory accord that led to the formation of an autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988.

However, in subsequent years, Ghisings failure to meet the popular aspirations in the hills led to a fresh outburst of discontent and a fresh call for a separate State of Gorkhaland. However, during Jyoti Basus tenure as Chief Minister, the situation was under control.

Even though Jyoti Basu was a communist to his fingertips, he was no doctrinaire; when the winds of globalisation reached the gates of India after having opened up the economy in Deng Xiaopings China, he realised that rapid economic development required heavy investment and modern technology, which necessitated private investment, including foreign capital. Thus, the prestigious Haldia Petrochemicals Complex was set up at Haldia in Medinipur. However, his approach to industrialisation was a pragmatic one to strike a balance between private management practices while ensuring the welfare of the labour force.

Like a true communist, Jyoti Basu placed the decisions of the party above all personal considerations. In 1996, he was the unanimous choice for the post of Prime Minister in the United Front government at the Centre. But he turned down the offer as the majority decision of his party was against it joining the government. Jyoti Basu, of course, later referred to this as a historic blunder, but he did not blame anyone else for it. Years later, he wrote in his memoirs: I am not getting any younger. The burden of being Prime Minister would have proved to be taxing, and it remains a fact that running a coalition with the support of a party like the Congress is not particularly a rosy prospect. I was in a way quite relieved.

Even after stepping down as Chief Minister on health grounds, Jyoti Basu remained the star attraction at rallies and political campaigns. When he was unable to be present in gatherings, his message was carried to the people through videos. His counsel was considered invaluable by not only the ruling party of West Bengal but also the government at the Centre. Senior leaders from other States and other parties, too, sought his advice on a variety of issues. In life he was one of the few beacon lights History leaves behind on the shores of Time, a light death can never hope to extinguish.