The death of Subodh Roy marks the end of an era that linked the present-day communist movement with the freedom struggle.
"His life was gentle, and the elements So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world `This was a man!'- William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)
ON April 18, 1930, a 14-year-old boy stole his father's licensed gun and headed off to join the armed uprising under the leadership of the legendary `Master-da' (Surya Sen) to overthrow British rule. The boy, whose name was Subodh Roy (known popularly by his pet-name Jhunku), was only a student of Class VIII when he joined other young revolutionaries to raid and capture two armouries in Chittagong city (now in eastern Bangladesh), take control of the post and telegraph offices, disconnect the railway line and hoist the national flag. For two days, Chittagong stood proud and liberated, before the revolt was put down brutally by the British forces after a pitched gun battle. But neither torture nor incarceration could break Jhunku's spirit, and long after India gained its independence, the revolutionary inside Subodh Roy continued to struggle for the liberation of the toiling masses.
With Subodh Roy's death at the age of 90, on August 26, the communist movement in India lost one of the last stalwarts whose life and work can be held up as an inspiration for those who work for social change and a reminder for those who take their freedom and comfort for granted as they do the poverty and deprivation around them.
Born into a zamindar family in Chittagong in 1916, Subodh Roy was the second of six children. His father was a successful barrister, with a thriving practice in the Chittagong Court. Right from an early age, Subodh Roy was drawn to the movement of armed resistance to British rule; and when he took part in the Chittagong armoury raid, he found unquestioning support from his father, who was believed to have said: "I feel proud to have a son like this." Many considered Subodh Roy to be too young to face the challenges of such a movement, but none could deter him and make him turn back.
After a pitched battle with two companies of British soldiers in Chittagong, the freedom fighters dispersed with the determination to continue the stuggle through guerilla warfare. Subodh Roy, as instructed, went back home with Master-da's words ringing in his ears: "If you get caught, don't tell anything. We all depend on you." Subodh Roy's father's reputation and respectability might have averted the suspicion of the police for a while, but it was not long before the licence number of his father's gun retrieved from him, led them to the boy. At that time Surya Sen, Ganesh Ghosh (who later joined the Communist Party of India-Marxist) and a number of other revolutionaries were sheltered in Subodh Roy's village house in Nuapada. No amount of torture could get any information out of the 14-year-old.
Eventually, they were caught and the trial that followed took place inside the jail. Master-da was hanged in 1934 and most of the other revolutionaries were sentenced to transportation for life and sent to the cellular jail in the Andamans. Subodh Roy, who was only 18 years then, was perhaps the youngest to be sent to that prison.
It was while in the cellular jail that he came under the influence of Dr. Narayan Roy and studied Marxist literature under his guidance. Immediately after his release in 1940, Subodh Roy became a member of the Communist Party and got in touch with Muzaffar Ahmed. At his suggestion, Subodh Roy returned to Chittagong and subsequently became a full-time member of the party.
At that time Chittagong, which shares its border with Burma (now Myanmar), served as a link between the communist movements in the two countries; and in 1941, when Japan attacked Burma, the central committee of the Communist Party instructed its Chittagong division to prepare a `squad' to be sent to the Arakan region of the war-ravaged Burma. A large part of that region was considered `no man's land', where the local landlords held sway with their private armies.
The purpose of the squad was to make a comprehensive survey of the region, its economic and social conditions, gauge the attitude of the local people towards the Japanese occupying forces, and to organise a guerilla force. The Arakan unit of the Burmese Communist Party could not perform this role owing to the hostility of the local Rohangi population towards them. Therefore the Chittagong unit was entrusted with the task and Subodh Roy was made leader of the squad of five (though ultimately only two crossed over to Burma with him). The assignment was fraught with danger; there were even reports that the squad members had been killed. But Subodh Roy, true to his character, carried on undaunted.
To him, then and always, retreat was never an option. On his return from the Arakans, he found himself in the midst of the crippling Bengal famine of 1943, and at once set about in the relief work for the victims.
CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Jyoti Basu remembers his old friend and comrade: "He was two years younger than me. In 1940, when he was released from prison, I too returned from England... . I was the State secretary of the undivided Communist Party from 1953 to 1960, and I remember the sincerity and dedication with which he would do his work. He continued to do so right till the end of his life. I got to know so much about the armed uprising against the British from him.... There was a time he was also in charge of the functions of the Alipore Zoo. Even there he excelled. In the last party congress we honoured him as a great leader. To lose a comrade like him makes me very sad."
In 1964, when the Communist Party of India (CPI) split, Subodh Roy joined the CPI(M) and dedicated himself to work in the party's West Bengal State Committee. Later he went to New Delhi to make use of the National Archives for his research on the communist movement in the country. There he came across a lot of secret, important documents maintained by the British rulers. It was during his research that he got acquainted with some representatives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) who were visiting India at the time. Quite taken by his knowledge, they invited Subodh Roy to the Soviet Union, which he visited to enrich his research, with the sources in the Russian archives.
After years of painstaking study, Subodh Roy came out with one of the definitive books on the subject in Indian perspective, Communism in India: Unpublished Documents. In three volumes, it charts the course of the communist movement in the country from 1917 to 1945.
In his personal life too, Subodh Roy lived up to the image of a true communist. A bachelor, he led a simple life, bordering on austerity, cooking his own meals and washing his own clothes. In relating to people, he came across as a warm, friendly, unassuming and helpful comrade. He never sought any office either in the party or in the government.
To an impartial observer of the communist movement, which is going through a period of transition and adaptation to the changing times all over the world, the loss of this veteran is a reminder of days when the battlelines of the class struggle were clearly defined, and giants strode the earth. It is also a reminder that the battle itself is far from over.