Somnath Chatterjee: People’s Speaker

Print edition : September 14, 2018

February 26, 2009: Somnath Chatterjee leaving Parliament House on the conclusion of the 14th Lok Sabha. It was his last day as Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Photo: Subhav Shukla/PTI

Somnath Chatterjee and his wife, Renu, with Sitaram Yechury at Jyoti Basu’s birth centenary celebrations in Kolkata on July 8, 2015. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

Somnath Chatterjee (1929-2018) was an unrelenting opponent of anti-democratic forces.

Somnath Chatterjee was one of India’s greatest parliamentarians. In a political career that spanned four decades, culminating in his appointment as Speaker of the Lok Sabha, he not only elevated the status and dignity of Parliament with his exemplary work and deportment, but also introduced many path-breaking initiatives that enhanced the prestige and at the same time helped popularise the goings on in the House among the masses. A 10-time member of the Lok Sabha, a stalwart of the communist movement in the country, an outstanding barrister, a committed crusader for the cause of the downtrodden, and an unrelenting and fierce opponent of anti-democratic totalitarian forces, Somnath Chatterjee was one of the towering political figures of post-independent India. He was the first, and so far the only, communist to be Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

He was one of those rare leaders whose popularity and appeal transcended party lines. He had the respect and regard of even staunch political opponents, as was evident in the way tributes flowed from all quarters when he passed away. “He was a stalwart of Indian politics. He made our parliamentary democracy richer and was a strong voice for the well-being of the poor and vulnerable,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His old adversary from the Congress, former President Pranab Mukherjee, said: “An outstanding parliamentarian and constitutionalist, he remained committed to the cause of people with a firm belief in pragmatic consensus. In his demise I have lost a personal friend, and the nation has lost a great son.”

West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee, who was the only person to have ever defeated Somnath Chatterjee in an election, said: “This is a great loss for us.” The general secretary of the CPI(M), Sitaram Yechury, said: “In his death we lost a champion of democracy and democratic rights.”

Born on July 25, 1929, in Tejpur, Assam, to the eminent barrister Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee and Binapani, Somnath was a sickly child suffering from nephritis. He recovered under the treatment of the legendary physician Sir Nilratan Sircar and could start attending school. Like his great leader and mentor, Jyoti Basu, the first school that Somnath Chatterjee attended was an all-girls school, Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School, where his sisters studied. (Jyoti Basu at the age of six was admitted to Loreto Kindergarten at Dharmatala in Kolkata.) At 11, Somnath went to the famous Mitra Institution, a Bengali-medium school where he was taught by legendary figures such as the poet Kabishekhar Kalidas Ray, who taught Bengali, the great mathematician Keshab Chandra Nag, and the Sanskrit scholar Janaki Nath Shastri. After finishing school, he went to Presidency College, where he studied science in the intermediate and economics for his bachelor’s degree. While doing his master’s degree in economics in Calcutta University, he also began to study law, wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps. In 1950, he set out for England to become a barrister from Middle Temple, like his father.

N.C. Chatterjee, apart from being a well-known barrister, was also a high-profile political figure. He was the president of the All India Hindu Mahasabha, and in the first general election to the Lok Sabha in 1952, he contested as a Hindu Mahasabha candidate and won. A question that Somnath had to face throughout his life was how come he became such a stalwart of the communist movement, given his father’s political leanings. The fact is that later in his political career N.C. Chatterjee developed close ties with the Left movement and in 1963 and 1967 was elected to the Lok Sabha as an independent candidate with the support of the Left. Somnath Chatterjee later recalled that even before the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), was formed, stalwarts of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI), including Jyoti Basu, Benoy Choudhury and Snehangshu Kanta Acharya, would often visit his father in his house.

In 1953, Somnath completed his studies abroad and returned home for good to his family and his wife, Renu, and his young son, Pratap, who was born in 1951. It was while establishing his practice in the Calcutta High Court that Somnath Chatterjee was introduced to Jyoti Basu by Snehangshu Acharya. Basu would remain a lasting influence in his life. Over the next few years, under the influence of Acharya, he became acquainted with Marxist literature and became a member of the Democratic Lawyers’ Association, the lawyers’ wing of the CPI(M). Though he was taking up cases of trade unions and workers of the Left parties in the Calcutta High Court, he had still not thought of joining active politics or becoming a member of the CPI(M).

Interestingly, it was Jyoti Basu and Benoy Choudhury who persuaded Somnath’s father to allow him to contest the 1971 Lok Sabha elections from Bardhaman with the CPI(M)’s support. The then State secretary of the party, Promode Dasgupta, and Hare Krishna Konar also spoke to N.C. Chatterjee on this matter. With his father’s consent, Somnath Chatterjee fought the election as an independent candidate and won. Thus began one of the most glorious parliamentary careers of India. Two years later, in 1973, he became a member of the CPI(M).

Parliamentary career

Under the wings of the eminent CPI(M) parliamentarian Jyotirmoy Bosu and Polit Bureau member A.K. Gopalan, Somnath Chatterjee quickly learnt the ropes and established a formidable reputation for himself in the Lok Sabha. His role model was Hiren Mukherjee of the CPI, whom he rated “as the greatest parliamentarian” he had ever come across.

“His commitment to the common people, his understanding of their problems and his command over language were unmatched…. To me he was the true embodiment of what an ideal parliamentarian should be—precise and to the point, with in-depth knowledge of the selected subject, appropriate articulation, extremely respectful to the Chair and ever mindful of the rules and conventions of the House,” he later wrote of Hiren Mukherjee. The same attributes could be applied to Somnath Chatterjee himself. If there was anyone who was a true inheritor of Hiren Mukherjee’s legacy, it was Somnath Chatterjee.

His was one of the most fearless and articulate voices to speak out against any form of injustice and any attempt to undermine the freedom of the people and the democratic fabric of the country. In 1980, when the Indira Gandhi government enacted the National Security Act, Somnath said: “It is a matter of everlasting shame that this august House which should be the bastion of personal freedom, civil liberty and democratic rights of the people of this country, is involving itself today in the process of denuding the people of their minimal rights.”

Then again, when the Babri Masjid was destroyed in December 1992, Somnath Chatterjee demanded in Parliament that the mosque be rebuilt exactly at the place where it stood and a complex symbolising national integrity be set up in the area. His logically irrefutable and emotionally heart-rending words after the Gujarat riots in 2002 still resonate in the mind: “The victims are the innocent people of this country. Their crime is that they belong to a particular religion. They are totally defenceless.... If we consider every issue in this country on the basis of religion, what remains of this country?”

In the 1977 general election, he won from the newly created Jadavpur constituency, which he retained in the seventh Lok Sabha election in 1980 after the fall of the Janata Dal government. However, with the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, a sympathy wave for the Congress across the country resulted in Somnath Chatterjee’s first and only defeat in his parliamentary career. A young and upcoming Congress leader by the name of Mamata Banerjee caused this huge upset.

But Somnath Chatterjee was back in Parliament a year later after he won the byelection in the Bolpur constituency in Birbhum district. He was elected to the Lok Sabha from this constituency six more times, consecutively, until the end of his parliamentary career in 2009.

In June 2004, Somnath attained the pinnacle of his political life when he was unanimously elected the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Not only was he the first communist Speaker of the Lok Sabha, but the first pro tem Speaker to be elected as Speaker. Soon after assuming office, he had to preside over a particularly tumultuous period in Parliament with almost continuous disruption of proceedings. But he did not allow this to deter him from carrying out his responsibilities.

“The biggest satisfaction I can have is when people will point at the Lok Sabha and say that it is a responsible body that is working at taking this country forward and for solving the enormous problems of the people,” he had said in an interview to Frontline during that period of chaos. It is important to note that to uphold the neutral position of the Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee had completely stopped taking part in party meetings.

“It is not that I have given up my party or my political beliefs. My decision not to attend party meetings was a conscious one, so that people do not get the idea that I am following an active political life rather than discharging my functions as the Speaker in a non-partisan manner,” he told Frontline. However, his only regret was that he had lost regular contact with the masses.

As Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee took a number of path-breaking initiatives not only for a smoother and more orderly functioning of the House but also to “take the institution of Parliament closer to the people”. The Lok Sabha Television Channel (LSTV) was launched in May 2006, and a state-of-the-art Parliament Museum was set up the same year.

He raised the issue of the establishment of an autonomous salaries commission for MPs. In 2008 he instituted the prestigious Annual Parliamentary Lecture in memory of Hiren Mukherjee. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen delivered the inaugural lecture. Somnath Chatterjee also introduced an internship programme in Parliament to “serve as a bridge with the youth”.

As much as he was a parliamentarian’s parliamentarian, Somnath Chatterjee was also a “People’s Speaker”. The 14th Lok Sabha, in which he was Speaker, enacted 258 pieces of legislation, including the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Protection for Women from Domestic Violence Act.

Expulsion from CPI(M)

Towards the end of his term as Speaker, in 2008, Somnath Chatterjee was expelled from the CPI(M), the party he served for more than 30 years, when he refused to resign as Speaker following the CPI(M)’s withdrawal of support to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) over the signing of the 123 Agreement (India-U.S. Nuclear deal). However, he did not abandon his ideology and right until the end was ever ready and willing to lend his support to any leftist cause. His absence in the party was felt acutely after the 34-year-old CPI(M)-led Left Front government of West Bengal was ousted from power by the Trinamool Congress in 2011.

During the 2016 Assembly elections, various organisations connected with the Left approached Somnath Chatterjee for his support. “I have attended meetings of different organisations that are in the Left movement, but I do not want to create any problems. I never criticise the party, and as I have said before, if by my expulsion the party becomes stronger, then I will be happy,” he had told Frontline then.

The enormous sadness on being thrown out of the party he so loved remained with him until the end, but he bore no grudge and was always optimistic that the Left would be able to bounce back. “Lately and happily the party has become aware of the real situation. I feel the priority should be to remain with the people urgently and through a younger leadership. Let young leaders come to the front. It is essential that the Left parties recover their position in India,” he had told Frontline. His refusal to obey his party’s line stemmed from his belief in the neutrality of the position of the Speaker.

Somnath Chatterjee was among the first top leaders in West Bengal to stress the importance of industrialisation, and in 1994, when Chief Minister Jyoti Basu announced his industrial policy, Somnath Chatterjee assumed the post of the Chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) and worked indefatigably towards bringing investments into the State. His stress on inviting industries often elicited criticism from a section of the party which was uncomfortable about his perceived proximity to businessmen.

His pragmatic approach to politics was also in evidence when he fully supported the idea of Jyoti Basu accepting the offer of prime ministership in 1996. “Jyoti Basu and I were not averse to the idea,” he wrote in his autobiography Keeping the Faith—Memoirs of a Parliamentarian. “The formation of a government under the leadership of Jyoti Basu in 1996 would have given a new life not only to the CPI(M) but to the entire Left and progressive forces in the country,” he wrote.

Twenty years later, ahead of the Assembly elections of 2016, as the debate raged whether the Pradesh Congress and the CPI(M) should bury their ideological differences and come to an understanding to take on the ruling Trinamool Congress, Somnath Chatterjee put the matter in perspective. “It is not a question of two different ideologies forging an alliance, it is a question of pulling the democratic resources in the State to fight against this present government with its anti-democratic approach,” he had told Frontline.

In Parliament and outside, Somnath Chatterjee was a larger-than-life figure. His towering frame, his baritone voice, his reputation and intellect made him appear intimidating at first sight; but when he smiled, warmth and generosity of his spirit flowed out. He was one of the most approachable leaders of Indian politics.

An avid football fan and a diehard supporter of Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, he was its executive member for a long time and also the president of the West Bengal Table Tennis Association. It is a poignant fact that it was not the red flag of the CPI(M) that draped his body in his last journey, but the green and maroon of his beloved football club.