Samar Mukherjee

Man of the masses

Print edition : August 23, 2013

Samar Mukherjee, a 2004 photograph. He was considered the very embodiment of Communist ideals. Photo: C. Ratheesh kumar

Former West Bengal Chief Minister and CPI(M) leader Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee felicitating Samar Mukherjee on his 99th birthday last year. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/ PTI

Samar Mukherjee (1913-2013) was more than just a Communist leader. He was the symbol of a way of life that inspired others.

IT was the year 1978, and the first panchayat elections were to be held in West Bengal. Samar Mukherjee, who was then in his mid-sixties, had gone to Narayangarh in Paschim Medinipur district to campaign for his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He spent a whole day there mingling with the people, sharing their food, and talking to the children, and in the evening, addressed a huge public meeting. When the meeting ended, it began to rain hard, making travelling not just difficult but dangerous. The condition of the roads in rural Bengal at that time was very poor, and Mukherjee’s car was soon lodged in a precarious position on a narrow, slippery stretch between two large ponds.

Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Surjya Kanta Mishra, who was at that time a young doctor working among the people of the region, recalls: “In that blinding rain, even as the car was slipping and was in danger of falling into one of the ponds, Samarbabu remained absolutely calm and unperturbed. Any other person would have panicked in a situation like that, but not him. And finally, with the help of the people who had come to see him, the car found its way to safety.”

The incident, though very real, is also, as Mishra pointed out, very symbolic of Samar Mukherjee’s life. “The path of a true Communist is not a straight highway, but a tortuous road full of dangers and impediments. It was that road that Samar Mukherjee took voluntarily with the love and support of the people,” Mishra told Frontline.

On July 18, this beloved Communist leader of the people passed away, just four months shy of his 100th birthday. He was the oldest living member of the CPI(M).

In many ways Samar Mukherjee was considered the very embodiment of Communist ideals. He lived a life of exemplary austerity and never lost his childlike simplicity. However, his gentle and amiable disposition concealed a fierce commitment to the Communist movement and a masterful ability at organisational work. In its statement, the Polit Bureau of the CPI(M)—of which Mukherjee was a member from 1978 to 1992—called him “a most exceptional, outstanding and dedicated leader of the Communist movement in India”. At the time of his death, he was a special invitee to the party’s Central Committee.

He worked indefatigably and his contribution to the Communist movement was not restricted to any one particular area. Just as he was an exceptional organiser, he was also an outstanding parliamentarian. He was elected a member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Amta in 1957, and was elected a member of the Lok Sabha thrice consecutively, between 1971 and 1984. He was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha twice. Mukherjee was deeply involved with the trade union movement and played a crucial role in the historic railway workers’ strike in 1974. He was also general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) from 1983 to 1991. Apart from all this, he was a prolific writer and spent much of his spare time in serious studies.

Samar Mukherjee joined the Communist movement in 1940 directly from the Indian nationalist movement. Even after becoming a member of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI), he did not break his association with the Indian National Congress until 1944. Mukherjee quickly established his reputation in the party with his organising abilities, and was one of the main architects of the development of the Communist movement in Howrah district. Even when the party was banned in 1948, Mukherjee, after serving a three-month jail sentence, continued to work underground to build up the party machinery in the district. Stories abound about the ingenious and often life-threatening methods he would adopt to give the police the slip. Once he threw himself off a speeding train to avoid arrest.

In 1953, he became a member of the West Bengal State Council of the party, and it was around this time that he played a significant role in building up the movement for the rights of the refugees from East Bengal—a movement that helped expand the influence of the party.

In 1960, he was elected general secretary of the United Central Refugee Council (UCRC), a post he held all his life.

In 1964, when the party split, he joined the CPI(M). He also established the Institute of Marxism-Leninism. The project was very close to Mukherjee’s heart, and though it had to close down after a few years, he never completely abandoned it. In fact, towards the end of his life, he had expressed an interest in restarting the institute. The year 1964 once more saw him being arrested, this time along with other stalwarts of the CPI(M), including Muzaffar Ahmed, Promode Dasgupta and Harekrishna Konar. After his release from prison in 1966, Mukherjee was elected to the party’s Central Committee. He resumed his battle in right earnest against revisionist and orthodox forces through a series of articles published in Desh Hitoishi (the party’s weekly mouthpiece). It was a war he waged throughout his life.

Born on November 7, 1913, in Amta in Howrah district, Mukherjee was drawn to revolutionary ways at a very early age. In 1928, when the Congress launched the ‘Simon Committee Go Back’ movement, the students’ organisation of the Amta Pitambar High School, where 14-year-old Mukherjee was studying, also called a strike. Mukherjee, who was in the seventh standard at that time, participated in the protest. Two years later, young Samar took part in the Civil Disobedience movement called by Mahatma Gandhi, this time as a full-fledged Congress worker. Later in the year, under his leadership some students of his school began an agitation programme by picketing the school gates. “After the calling off of the movement when I came to join the school, I was told by the Head Master that I had no place in this school because I had been declared ‘Rusticated’ by the Managing Committee of the school,” Mukherjee wrote later.

But this did not mean the end of his academic career, for he soon got admission in Bowbazar High School, which was run by the revolutionary Girin Banerjee. After completing his matriculation, Mukherjee enrolled in the City College as a student of science. He continued to be a revolutionary students’ leader and activist. From around the mid-1930s, Mukherjee was increasingly drawn to the Communist movement, particularly towards organising peasants and workers. By 1940, he was a full-fledged member of the CPI.

Samar Mukherjee was more than just a Communist leader. He was the symbol of a way of life that inspired others. Always accessible and gentle, he was in every sense a man of the people. A measure of the respect and admiration he commanded can be gauged by the manner in which political leaders cutting across party lines paid tributes to him. “We lost our beloved leader, and a true friend of the toiling masses,” said Biman Bose, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, West Bengal State secretary of the party, and chairman of the Left Front.

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