A passionate revolutionary

Print edition : August 27, 2004

Hirendranath Mukherjee, 1907-2004. -

SOME time ago at Dakshineshwar, near Kolkata, recalls West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, some "poor" people who were gathering coal from a mound were buried alive when it caved in. "The following day he [Hirendranath Mukherjee] got in touch with me. `Such an incident has occurred and none of you cared to rush to the site?', he asked. I stood there that day, head bowed. I could say nothing."

Buddhadeb continues: "It only goes to demonstrate a compassion rarely seen among politicians. His sympathies lay deep, with the poor, the downtrodden. He often used to remind me `the government is functioning, there are problems but let us not lose our principal sense of purpose'."

Professor Hirendranath Mukherjee, better known as Hiren Mukherjee, a veteran Communist leader, a brilliant parliamentarian, a gifted orator and prolific writer breathed his last on July 30 at the SSKM Hospital in Kolkata following a cardiac failure. He was 97. "Until his last day he had held onto this conviction," Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee says. "I rushed to him the night I heard of the mishap." Hiren Mukherjee had suffered a fall at his residence. `I do not want to live like a vegetable. I want to live with the dignity of man, with pride' he told me, drawing from Marxism."

Similar words of anguish were expressed by Hiren Murkherjee when former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu called on him a few days later at the hospital where he had been admitted. "He saw and recognised me," says Jyoti Basu. "He held my hands and said: `It is very painful but even now my brain is functioning normally'. Hiren Mukherjee had always wished that until his very end he remain mentally alert. His wish has been fulfilled."

Writing on death, Hiren Mukherjee had said: "Senior citizens especially should be enabled, without social obloquy and legal obstruction, to say `quits' to life, deeply loved and cherished yet found unbearable, and to receive medical assistance in this regard". The subject in question was euthanasia, the book India's Ordeal. Aspirations, Affirmations, Anxieties, the chapter "Right to Die". He wrote: "Of course there are problems involved, but who in his senses looks for a problem-free existence, except perhaps in heaven, so irretrievably dull with nothing to do but singing God's praise."

A MAN of versatile genius Hirendranath Mukherjee was born on November 23, 1907. He joined the Communist Party of India in 1936. A parliamentarian par excellence he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Kolkata North East constituency for five consecutive terms beginning 1952. Always a brilliant student, Hirendranath Mukherjee won the Duff, Gwalior, Burdwan and many other scholarships, medals and prizes in his academic career. In 1929, he went to London to study at the St. Catherine's Oxford University and Lincoln's Inn on a State scholarship. He obtained a B. Litt in 1932 and passed the Bar-at-Law Examination in 1934. On his return to India, the same year he joined Andhra University at Waltair as a lecturer, at the instance of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who later became the first Vice-President of India. He subsequently joined Rippon College, now renamed Surendranath College, in Kolkata in 1936 as the Head of the Department of History and the Calcutta University in 1940 as a lecturer in History and Political Philosophy.

A prolific writer, both in Bengali and English, Hiren Mukherjee used to contribute articles to numerous magazines and journals. He authored several books: Indian Struggles for Freedom, Under Marxist Banner, Portrait of Parliament, India and Marxism, ABC of Marxism and A History of India, to name a few. He was honoured with the Mujaffar Ahmed Smriti Puraskar for his book Yuger Jantnana-o-Pratyayer Sankat in 2001.

A man of sheer character and extraordinary genius Hiren Mukherjee was awarded honorary doctorates by Andhra University, Calcutta University, North Bengal University and Rabindra Bharati University. He was also the recipient of the Padma Bhushan in 1990 and Padma Vibhushan in 1991.

"T>HROUGH his speeches in Parliament the Communist Party of India (CPI) gained the respect of the people," says Jyoti Basu. "He was successful in drawing many bourgeois intellectuals to the fold. Nehru was particularly attracted to his speeches... the two got intimate as a result," Jyoti Basu recalled in an article on Hiren Mukherjee shortly after his death. "Jawaharlal Nehru was well aware that Hiren Mukherjee was the conscience of the Left," adds Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

"He stayed on with the Communist Party of India when the parent party broke up," Jyoti Basu said. "There were many ideological differences between the two parties [the CPI and the newly-formed Communist Party of India (Marxist)] but yet my personal relationship with Hiren Mukherjee and Bhupesh Gupta was very cordial.... After the Left Front government came to power in West Bengal he used to attend various functions. He used to be in touch with our (CPI-M) party leaders and had love and respect for the party. Despite his deteriorating health I could see that when he spoke he did so very well. There was no confusion either in his logic or his facts."

Said Ashok Mitra, a Left intellectual and former West Bengal Finance Minister, "Hiren Mukherjee's heart broke at the party's division. While he stayed with the CPI, that did not stop him from extolling the greatness of Joseph Stalin, the true builder, in his judgment, of the Soviet Union. It was a most unusual spectacle: the CPI was embarrassed by Hiren Mukherjee's Stalin idolatry; but could do little about it. Until the very end he remained a bridge between the two parties, and perhaps had more adherents in the CPI(M) than in the CPI."

IN his book Portrait of Parliament: Reflections and Recollections 1952-77, Hiren Mukherjee writes: "The Left, however, for all its faults and factions and errors is no minor factor in India. There is no reason for it to fear it has reconciled to being a poor relation of the rich `vested interests' parties now dominant in the national scene.... " How relevant these words are in the context of the present political situations in the country.

"Historically speaking, there is no bar - rather there is every warrant for the two Communist parties, along with other Left and socialism-oriented forces including the "ultras"... to come closer to one another and form the real alternative for our people to accept... In the mid-thirties Bernard Shaw once concluded his Fabian lectures thus: `I am impatient for the revolution. I shall be jolly happy if the revolution happens tomorrow. But being an average coward I want you to make the revolution in as gentlemanly a manner as possible'."

As the years wore on was it that Hiren Mukherjee was losing some of his political robustness? On the Gujarat carnage Hiren Mukherjee wrote in an article in Ganashakti, a Bengali daily, which was published on May 8, 2002: "I have been writing for a ceaseless stretch. My sight is now impaired. I am tired. I feel totally defeated - the way in which I should have been writing, the language, the intensity is no longer there...[but] today's danger has to be challenged. Revolution brooks no defeat."

Only a month earlier in a letter to the President on April 21, 2002 he had written: "Horrendous recent happenings in Gujarat have stunned numberless people wondering how man could do such things to man. In public life since 1936, I feel broken, shattered, desolate, not knowing where to turn." He continues, "I cannot write to Atal [Atal Bihari Vajpayee], for whom I have had much affection, because as Prime Minister he has chosen to condone and explain away cruelties that almost out-Hitler Hitler."

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, paying tribute to Hiren Mukherjee, points out that "until the last day he believed in the need to change society, and despite the existing problems in the rebuiliding of a new one... " This is true, going by what Hiren Mukherjee wrote in an article: "India's ordeal [and the world's also] continues, more acutely than ever and History's latest `ironies' have to be faced."

"On the world plane the defeat of fascism by, pre-eminently, the forces of the Bolshevik Revolution [1917] and the Chinese Revolution [1937-49] threw up hopes of the alliance of socialism and national liberation advancing everywhere. Such hopes, by no means dashed to the ground, have come lately to be eclipsed on account of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and other countries of `real, existing socialism' collapsing, and the world movement for freedom, peace and socialism almost following suit. History's `eclipses' last much longer than astral ones, but by the very nature eclipses are temporary. There is no reason to believe that mankind cannot endure forever `the shame, the filth, the inhumanity' of capitalism and the exploitative society. A new society, however, cannot rise automatically. Victory never comes of itself: it has to be taken by the hand. Even in the encircling gloom one must not despair. `Have no fear', said a seventeenth century English revolutionary, `it must be worse before it is better'."

"Politics", Hiren Mukherjee once wrote, "fundamentally speaking, calls for passion in its pursuit. And passion, in Latin and the Romance languages, has for its first as meaning `suffering' which none in true political life should wish to escape."

Perhaps it is this "passion" Ashok Mitra is speaking of in his tribute to the "eminent scholar-politician" as he chooses to describe Hiren Mukherjee. "It was Hiren Mukherjee's passion, welded onto his ideology that mattered. To have passion, he was determined to prove, does not harm the cause of ideology; it enhances it. Those not subscribing to the ideology would still salute the integrity of this most passionate man... Hiren Mukherjee's loyalty to the cause of the exploited was much more than just cerebral...," says Ashok Mitra.

In his death, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee feels he has lost "a guardian", Ashok Mitra a mentor "who had a lot to do in the development of my own personality". Veteran filmmaker Mrinal Sen said: "He was an outstanding individual, the rarest of rare. I remember him helping me with notes that I made use of while writing the script of my documentary on a moving perspective of the history of India in 1966."

West Bengal Assembly Speaker Hasim Abdul Halim said: "Hirendranath Mukherjee was a rare politician who always fought for socialism and never allowed dogmatism to dominate his liberal outlook." As Hirendranath Mukherjee himself confessed in one of his writings: "I hesitate to judge people too sternly: one of my favourites is the Somerset Maugham character who said he did not fancy one particular job, namely, `God's' on Judgment Day."

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