Of a dwindling breed

Veteran CPI leader and trade union icon A.B. Bardhan’s (1925-2016) life and career were marked by an intense commitment to the poor and the marginalised and a clear articulation of their aspirations.

Published : Jan 20, 2016 12:30 IST

BANGALORE, 26/12/2009: A.B.Bardhan, general secretary , CPI addressing the gathering in a public meeting of Communist Party of India at Freedom Park, in  Bangalore on December 26, 2009. 
Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

BANGALORE, 26/12/2009: A.B.Bardhan, general secretary , CPI addressing the gathering in a public meeting of Communist Party of India at Freedom Park, in Bangalore on December 26, 2009. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

“NOW, that’s an important point you have made in the Nripen da obituary. But more important is what you journalists and of course the political class are going to do about it.” This was how Ardhendu Bhushan Bardhan responded to the Frontline obituary on Nripen Chakraborty, former Chief Minister of Tripura and leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

That was 11 years ago, in January 2005, a couple of weeks after the veteran Tripura politician had passed away. The question posed by the then general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) was in reference to the statement in the obituary that Nripen Chakraborty belonged to a “rare and dwindling breed of politicians who had direct links with and experience of the freedom struggle”.

“It is indeed a glaring fact that the leaders of that generation are fast fading out from our social and political scenario. Their experiences and the values they cherished hold great lessons for Indian society in general and polity in particular. You journalists as well as young politicians need to realise this and methodically record and analyse the lives of these leaders and their experiences. But the moot question is whether you will have the conviction and the aptitude to do this.” Bardhan said this with his characteristic wistful smile.

More than a decade later, on January 2, 2016, A.B. Bardhan passed away at the age of 91. Again, it could be said that India had lost yet another leader from the rare and dwindling breed of politicians who had direct links with and experience of the freedom struggle.

Over the last 10 years, this writer had many occasions to meet Comrade Bardhan, as friends and associates referred to him even in informal interactions, and not once did he directly refer to our exchange on Nripen Chakraborty. But it was evident from his political activity and discourses that he was reminding the political class, the media and society at large about the constant deviations from the lessons and values of the freedom struggle.

Drawing from his varied social and political experiences as a participant in the struggle for national liberation in his youth and later as a trade union leader and an upholder of Left politics, Bardhan constantly sought to highlight the point that the propagation and growth of communal ideology and of the policy of economic liberalisation were major and dangerous deviations from the spirit of equality and social justice on which the freedom struggle was founded. In the process, he found the media and large sections of the political class wanting in addressing these problems and expressed this view without mincing words.

His virtual outburst before media persons in the run-up to the formation of the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2004 was a blunt expression, as was his wont, of his intense commitment to the poor and marginalised sections of society.

The Lok Sabha elections threw up a split verdict and the Congress-led UPA could form a government only with the support of the Left parties. The very talk of such a possibility had apparently resulted in commotion in the stock market, given the Left’s opposition to the policies of economic liberalisation.

Emerging from a meeting with Congress-UPA leaders, Bardhan was asked about this so-called Left-induced commotion in the stock market and he did not take even a minute to respond: “ Bhaad mein jaaye Sensex [Let the Sensex go to hell].” He went on to add that it was the life of people that mattered more than the stock market numbers that built up or brought down the fortunes of some companies.

Remembering incidents related to the freedom struggle and reminding latter generations about the messages that they contained was second nature to him. This writer met with him for the first time in the mid-1980s at Ajay Bhawan, the national headquarters of the CPI. I said, by way of self-introduction, that I hailed from Kerala. Bardhan immediately remembered his first visit to Kerala when he was just 22.

That trip was in January 1948 and Bardhan had been working with the All India Students Federation (AISF) at that time.

“There was a meeting of the AISF in Thiruvananthapuram and I was all set to get off after a long train journey. But the train came to halt suddenly at Kollam, about 50 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram. The shocking news of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination spread through the train and it was evident that those bound for Thiruvananthapuram would not be able to reach their destination on time. All the passengers got out and walked into Kollam town. There was intense grief all around, but the common people ensured that there was no violence and that long-distance travellers were looked after. I made friends with a lot of people at Kollam, including activists of the Congress and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), the Leftist organisation with strong roots in the region. Even at that point of time the secular tradition treated with respect different and nuanced political streams. But the communal tradition was different, as highlighted by the very assassination of Gandhiji by Nathuram Godse.” Bardhan’s articulation of these views was clear in terms of detail and its political thrust.

During a visit to Nagpur, barely a year after this first meeting, this writer met scores of people recollecting Bardhan’s skills of forceful articulation and argumentation. It was in this Maharashtra town and adjoining areas that he was drawn, as a teenager, to the freedom movement and Left politics.

He was born in Sylhet, now in Bangladesh, on September 25, 1925, but his family moved to Nagpur when he was a child as his father was working there. A number of Bardhan’s friends remembered him as a precocious child in imbibing knowledge and understanding politics.

His decision to join the freedom movement was not driven merely by an emotional trigger but by intellectual convictions also. He had acquired the capacity to read, write and speak Bengali, Marathi, Hindi and English in his early teens.

He later learnt French too and read original works in that language. This intellectual stream, his friends said, helped him differentiate between the traditional Congress ideology, which was marked by a paucity of pro-people orientation, and the Left political stream, which had ideas to overcome that deficiency. Thus, he was drawn to the united CPI by the time he was 15 and was deputed to the AISF. Later, he was deputed to the trade union wing and Bardhan came to be known across Maharashtra and other parts of the country as a fiery leader. He later became general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).

His participation in the freedom struggle and affiliation to Left politics post-Independence brought him into constant conflict with the British establishment and, later, the Congress government establishment. He was arrested over 20 times and jailed for long durations four times in his political career. Three of these incarcerations were in independent India. Altogether he spent four and a half years in jail.

The parliamentary stint in his political career, which spanned over seven decades, was minuscule. He became part of legislative politics only once, when he got elected to the Maharashtra State Assembly in 1957 as an independent candidate.

Later, in 1967 and 1980, he contested the Lok Sabha elections but lost, albeit after putting up a spirited fight and garnering a good number of votes.

Left unity & secular alliance

He had moved into the national trade union movement in the mid-1980s and shifted his base to New Delhi in the 1990s. He was first elected as the CPI’s deputy general secretary and then as its general secretary in 1996, when he replaced Indrajit Gupta who became Home Minister.

In his organisational role, he strengthened Left unity and built up secular alliances along with Harkishan Singh Surjeet, general secretary of the CPI(M) in the 1990s and early 2000s. Both the leaders were essentially motivated by the conviction that the twin dangers of communalism and economic liberalisation were playing havoc with the lives of the Indian people. He stepped down as general secretary of the CPI in March 2012, after holding four consecutive terms spanning 16 years.

Although Bardhan repeatedly asked journalists to record political experiences of the past and was an avid reader of historical books and biographies, he himself refused to write an autobiography.

Bardhan cited two reasons for this: First, more pressing and important things were occupying his day-to-day life than thinking about himself and putting it down on paper and second, he believed that autobiographies usually ended up as exercises in self-congratulation and blaming others. His personal life was kept away from his public life. He was married to Padma, a schoolteacher, and they had two children—Alka, who is a doctor based in Ahmedabad, and Ashok, who teaches economics in the University of California, Berkeley. He stepped down from the top organisational position of the CPI, at the age of 87, citing indifferent health, but many of his comrades and associates fondly remember that his physical and intellectual prowess continued to amaze them.

Benoy Viswam, a CPI leader from Kerala, who used to sit in the room adjacent to Bardhan’s at Ajay Bhawan, recounts how the veteran leader disproved the general belief that he would be crippled and bedridden for long after suffering a cerebral stroke in January 2015.

“Comrade Bardhan fought back, like all good communists do. [He] not only attended the CPI congress at Pondicherry but made a concise and memorable presentation of the revised political document of the party. The manifold challenges that he engaged with were exemplary. It was not merely a fight against political opponents and the might of the establishment but also a constant struggle to push one’s own physical and intellectual limitations,” he said.

Viswam’s assessment of the veteran is shared not only by his comrades and associates but by several neutral observers and even political opponents like Bharatiya Janata Party leader Nitin Gadkari, who knew Bardhan from his Nagpur days.

Evidently, his was a political life that needs to be analysed and studied so that the question he posed to the media and younger politicians in the wake of Nripen Chakraborty’s death could get a satisfactory answer.

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