Beacon of secularism

Print edition : August 29, 2008

Harkishan Singh Surjeet. A 1998 picture.-RAJEEV BHAT

Harkishan Singh Surjeet (1916-2008) will be remembered as the architect of the grand secular alliance that kept the communal forces out of power.

COMRADE Harkishan Singh Surjeet is like a race horse. Whether there is a race or not a race horse needs to keep running in order to remain fighting fit. So also Comrade Surjeet. Whether there is an immediate purpose or not, he would continue to run and generally be in the thick of activity. This was how Makineni Basavapunnaiah, one of the members of the first Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) described his colleague in an interaction with the partys youth leaders in the late 1980s. Basavapunnaiah passed away in 1992, but his comment continued to be repeated in Left party circles as an assessment of Surjeet that is at once figurative and objective.

If Basavapunnaiah singled out Surjeet among the other three members of the nine-member first Polit Bureau E.M.S. Namboodiripad and B.T. Ranadive were the other two doyens who were then working in the party headquarters in New Delhi, it was to stress Surjeets dynamism as a person and as a political leader.

Surjeet, who died of cardiac arrest in New Delhi on August 1, lived up to Basavapunnaiahs assessment until the end of 2005, when physical ailments severely curtailed his movements. He cut across political, ideological and individual barriers to reach out to people, engage them in debate and generate new socio-political initiatives that had a decisive impact on national life. It was a dynamism that he sustained for seven and a half decades without a break.

Qualitatively, it was unique because the period of Surjeets social and political activity spanned several generations and different socio-political circumstances. His political activity started during the anti-colonial national liberation movement and developed in the post-Independence period through intense struggles that highlighted the problems and demands of the peasantry.

In later years, his political activity was focussed on fighting authoritarianism, communalism and fascist tendencies. Through this period he sharpened his skill to communicate with different groups of people, addressing the needs of changing conditions.

Travelling with Surjeet in 1985 to Bundala, his native village near Jallandhar in Punjab, this correspondent had a chance to meet his childhood friend Gurmej Singh, who revered him as a freedom fighter, nation builder and a protector of national unity and integrity. The journey was part of a campaign against terrorism undertaken by Surjeet across Punjab. The CPI(M) had put up a strong fight against the forces that demanded Khalistan and had lost as many as 200 of its cadre in the process. Surjeet himself was considered to be number one in the hit list of the Khalistan terrorists, but he travelled the length and breadth of Punjab depending mainly on the protection provided by the CPI(M) cadre.

The nine members of the first Polit Bureau of the CPI(M): (clockwise from top left) Jyoti Basu, B.T. Ranadive, P. Sundarayya, A.K. Gopalan and Harkishan Singh Surjeet, M. Basavapunnaiah, Pramode Das Gupta, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and P. Ramamurthy.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Talking to this correspondent then, Gurmej Singh had specifically pointed to the contrast between Surjeet and other mainstream political leaders in terms of security cover. Look, he does not want your army or paramilitary forces to protect himself from the terrorists. He is trying to protect the country from division and deterioration, and he knows that in this struggle his people would protect him, Gurmej Singh said. It was the same faith in people that propelled his childhood friend when he was all of 16 to clamber up the Hoshiarpur court building with the tricolour in hand and hoist it even as the British armys soldiers fired at him repeatedly. It was the same faith and trust that led Surjeet to give his name as London Tore Singh (the Sardar who breaks London) after the British arrested him for hoisting the tricolour.

As pointed out by Gurmej Singh and scores of other comrades and associates, one aspect of Surjeets political life of 77 years related to protecting the countrys unity, integrity and overall interests.

Born into a Bassi Jat family of Bundala on March 23, 1916, Surjeet started his political career in his early teens as a follower of Bhagat Singh. He joined Bhagat Singhs Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1930. This was followed by the daring flag-hoisting incident in Hoshiarpur, for which he was sent to a juvenile jail. But this was only the beginning of an arduous life.

He spent 10 years in jail, of which eight were in the pre-Independence period; he also spent eight years underground, cut off from family and friends. Nearly five of his years spent underground were after Independence; first, immediately after Independence and later, briefly, during the Emergency, which was in force between June 26, 1975, and March 21, 1977.

Surjeet was attracted to communism because of his interactions with the communist pioneers of Punjab during his first term in jail. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and was elected secretary of the Punjab State Kisan Sabha in 1938. Following militant peasant struggles, the government externed him from Punjab and he went to Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh where he started Chingari, a monthly newspaper.

The newspaper made a significant impact and helped advance the anti-colonial struggle. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Surjeet went underground but was arrested in 1940. He was imprisoned in the notorious Lahore Red Fort and kept in solitary confinement for three months, in terrible conditions. Later, he was shifted to the Deoli detention camp where he remained until 1944.

Surjeet once recounted to this correspondent how he had almost lost his eyesight after he was forced to stay in an underground dungeon without any passage for sunlight, for several months.

At the 18th congress of the CPI(M) in New Delhi in April 2005, where Prakash Karat succeeded Harkishan Singh Surjeet as general secretary.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

At the time of Independence Surjeet was the secretary of the Punjab unit of the Communist Party of India. He was elected to the partys Central Committee and Polit Bureau at its third congress in January 1954 and continued in them until the party split in 1964.

Surjeet was one of the leaders who walked out of the CPIs National Council and formed the CPI(M). He was elected to the Central Committee and Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) at the partys seventh congress in 1964 and continued in them until the 19th congress held in March-April 2008 in Coimbatore. He was elected general secretary of the Central Committee of the CPI(M) in 1992 and retired from the post in 2005, at the age of 89, when the party held its 18th congress in New Delhi.

As a member of the first Polit Bureau of the CPI(M), Harkishan Singh Surjeet made vital contributions to the development of the partys programmatic and tactical perspectives. In his own words, all these contributions were dictated essentially by three fundamental parameters. First, a consistent stand and struggle against the forces of colonialism and imperialism. Second, the struggle against all communal and divisive forces that threaten the basic fabric of the nation in terms of its geographical unity and communal harmony. Third, the fight against pro-rich economic policies that make the poor poorer and the rich richer.

There had been several battles on these fronts in Surjeets life. The solidarity campaigns in support of Vietnams liberation struggle, the Palestinian movement and Cubas long fight against imperialism were instances of his commitment to anti-colonial struggles. He was the Polit Bureau member in charge of international affairs for long and was associated with a large number of international leaders ranging from Fidel Castro to Nelson Mandela to Ho Chi Minh to Mao Tse Tung.

M.A. Baby, CPI(M) Central Committee member and Education Minister of Kerala, recounted to Frontline how the legendary Fidel Castro sought Surjeets presence in Havana when Indian organisations had sent a ship full of material to challenge the United States blockade of Cuba.

Surjeet was the president of the All India Kisan Sabha for several years and throughout this period he championed the cause of poor farmers and agricultural labourers. The fight against divisive, separatist and communal forces dominated his political life in the past two decades. It was the battle against Sikh terrorism in the 1980s and the struggle against Hindutva forces in the 1990s and after.

Surjeet once told this correspondent that his life-long fight against communalism was moulded, in many ways, by the stark events he had witnessed and experienced during Partition. He forged a broad alliance of secular parties and forces in 1989, 1996 and 2004 as part of his consistent efforts to keep the communal forces out of power.

Surjeet with Fidel Castro in Havana.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

According to CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan, who had worked with Surjeet for long on various political fronts, organisationally Surjeet would be remembered as a master tactician who could translate his partys as well as the larger Left and democratic fronts political line into practice, implementing it with great skill and innovation.

Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, told Frontline that Surjeet had a special way with other political leaders. He could get people to accept things they would not take from anyone else. He commanded such respect, he said. Mulayam Singh added that this was true of himself and of a host of other leaders, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Telugu Desam Party leader N. Chandrababu Naidu.

He and many other leaders ascribed this to a special skill that Surjeet had with fellow politicians. But Surjeet denied any such special skills in an interview given to Frontline in April 2005 in all probability his last interview. He was of the view that what the leaders of other parties ultimately accepted was the CPI(M)s political line at a particular time. Surjeet went on to add that those who failed to see this political- and policy-level relevance of the CPI(M)s line and reduced it to his individual skills hade no understanding of the functioning of a communist party.

All the same, the manner in which he rallied the secular forces, ranging from the Congress to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP), in a grand alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2004 elections would be remembered as one of the most important contributions of any Left and secular leader in the countrys polity.

According to veteran political analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi, Surjeet had made the impossible possible through the formation of the grand secular alliance. Surjeet was not one to rest on his laurels and wanted the 2004 election alliance unity to be translated into a more steadfast political alliance. But the response of the Congress, which virtually threw out S.P. leader Amar Singh from a United Progressive Alliance gathering despite the fact that Surjeet had taken him along, disappointed him greatly. Surjeet told this correspondent then that this action, in itself, raised doubts about the Congress long-term commitment to fight communal forces.

With Surjeets passing away, the class of leaders who participated actively in the freedom struggle and who carried that legacy into contemporary times is almost extinct. Jyoti Basu, Surjeets colleague in the first Polit Bureau, is perhaps the only exception.

As a committed communist, Surjeet had no time for observations that highlighted generational change or lamented the exit of leadership with historical experience. Talking about his own retirement as general secretary of the CPI(M), Surjeet had pointed out to this correspondent that one could not hope to have first-generation leaders at the helm of the party (or any other organisation) forever. He added that the fulfilment of such hope would require a biological miracle and that he was sure the younger leaders, at least in his party, had imbibed the right lessons from the first-generation leaders.

In a sense, this comment on generational change symbolises Surjeet the man and the politician. He derived tremendous experience and knowledge from his experiences but was never shackled to the past or its conceptual formulations. He always looked ahead to the new and the upcoming and that too with great confidence and optimism. The message of his life could well be for all people to imbibe this spirit.

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