Published in The Frontline,Volume 22 - Issue 25, Dec. 03 - 16, 2005
Your political life has spanned eight decades of momentous change. Could you begin by telling our readers something about your early political influences.
Although mine was a non-political family, I remember three events from the freedom movement that affected me and got me interested in politics. When I was sitting for the senior Cambridge examination in St. Xavier's School in Calcutta (as Kolkata was then called) in the 1930s, Gandhiji went on a fast. He called for a popular movement, and reading the papers I felt very bad. That day I told my father, who used to drop me at school every day, I did not feel like going to school. He understood without my telling him the reason.
The second event was when Subhas Chandra Bose was to address a meeting in the Calcutta Maidan. A cousin and I wore khadi clothes and went for the meeting. It did not take place. Thousands of people were gathered when a lathicharge began. Subhas Bose was arrested. We thought that since we were wearing khadi we should not run away. So we walked away and got a baton charge from an Anglo Indian sergeant.
The third event that influenced me was the Chittagong Armoury raid, which took place in 1930. For one or two days Chittagong was in the hands of those who were fighting for freedom with arms. They then had to retreat and fight from the hills. At that time I had a tiff with my Anglo-Indian and British friends who were studying in St. Xavier's, because the Jesuit fathers had circulated a leaflet condemning the incident in Chittagong. I was supporting the rebels. I did not realise at the time how much these events affected me.
Could you describe your stay in England in the 1930s as a law student - the flavour of the times and the people and events that influenced you.
I went to London in 1935, after passing my degree with honours from Presidency College. Those were stirring times of great upheaval. I got interested in politics and in the freedom movement in our country. Students in Oxford, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics were discussing all this. Communist leaders in India - Muzaffar Ahmad in particular - were in touch with the Communist Party of Great Britain, the CPGB. Later on I heard that he sent the party a message asking the CPGB not to mix with "our boys", those who wanted to come back and work for the Communist Party in India as wholetimers, because they would then be kept under police watch. Before us, people like Hiren Mukherji and Sajjad Zaheer had decided to come back and work for the party.
We formed the All Great Britain Indian Students Federation, and the London Majlis, of which I was elected general secretary. Our job was to hold meetings, and when people like Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhulabhai Desai, Vijaylakshmi Pandit and other leaders went to London, we held receptions in their honour. There was Krishna Menon of the India League, which we joined and became very active in.
Then there was Bhupesh Gupta, who later joined the Communist Party of India after the party split in 1964. We stayed together in the same house for quite some time and he inspired me a lot. He was part of a group of freedom fighters who believed in armed insurrection and was imprisoned in a district in Bengal, from where he passed his B.A. and got interested in Marxism. His father got him out but was told that his passport is only for England. Mohan Kumaramangalam, his sister Parvathi, and his brothers were there.
They too wanted to come back and do wholetime party work, although Kumaramangalam later joined the Congress and became a Minister. Rajni Patel from Bombay, who was in England at that time, also joined the Congress and later quarreled with the Congress too! P.N. Haksar, who later became the adviser to Indira Gandhi, became a party wholetimer when he came back to India. Feroze Gandhi was there at that time. So was Indira who was very ill at that time. She sometimes used to come to our London Majlis meetings. She and Feroze were in love. They faced some trouble getting married as Nehru objected to the marriage, and agreed only after Gandhiji spoke to him.
The CPGB was small but really supported our independence. The party organised classes for us. During holidays, if we did not go abroad, students from Oxford, Cambridge and other universities used to meet. Harold Laski was there, a fine orator and speaker. So was Palme Dutt and his brother Clemens Dutt. Palme Dutt was well-informed on developments in India, and was in charge of India reporting for the Third International. It was through him that we knew what was happening there.
All these events influenced me.
In 1933, Hitler had come to power, and his slogan was `Germany today, the world tomorrow'. The Fascist Party was also born at that time in London. Abyssinia was attacked by Mussolini. His Fascist Party was formed in 1922. Japan had attacked China. In Spain there was civil war. We were very happy when Krishna Menon arranged for Nehru to go and shake hands with the Spanish Republicans.
The Third International had called for the formation of an International Brigade to fight fascism in Spain. The French closed their borders and would not allow arms to be sent to Spain. Dolores Ibarruri, the general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, was living in Paris. We in England wanted to give her a reception. However, the French government said that she would attend meetings, but would not be allowed to speak. So Nehru went to France to meet her, which inspired us a lot.
We organised a club in the East End in London, a very poor area, to teach English to illegal Bangladeshi migrants, particularly from Sylhet, who abandoned their ships and stayed on in London. They did not even know how to read and write their own language, let alone English. To get jobs, they needed at the very least to read road signs in English. Some of them even married British girls. This was a big thing for us, and we used to go every day to teach them.
Those were very exciting times. When we told Pandit Nehru - who was a little short-tempered - that many of us from different States of India believed in socialism, he said that we must first get independence and then we could think about all that. Subhas Bose, who was there for health reasons, gave lectures and met people from the CPGB. I remember when we told him that we wanted to become party wholetimers, he said it was good, though "politics is not a bed of roses". That I understand now, after 65 years in politics.
You were on the frontlines of the action during those eventful years of the 1940s that saw the final push for independence. Would you describe those years and the role played by the Left in the winning of Independence, especially in Bengal.
I returned to Calcutta on January 1, 1940 and became a member of the party two days later. The Second World War had started in 1939. I had finished the first part of my law degree. I wrote the second part in December, and returned without waiting for my results. In Calcutta I heard that I had got through.
Our party wanted to use me to keep contact with the underground party. I used to do all kinds of work - based on the platform of the Students Federation, I used to speak at meetings, go to different places to keep contacts, and so on.
Our party knew that the Congress was leading the freedom movement everywhere, including Bengal. And so some of our top leaders - not me of course, but Muzaffar Ahmad and others - were also members of the Congress. Our party used to work amongst the peasants and the workers mostly.
When the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany in 1941, we had a lot of discussion in the party and came to the conclusion, like the CPGB, that the imperialist war had become a People's War and we would support the Allied war effort.
Our poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was alive then, and he was very upset at the attack on the Soviet Union. He had been to the Soviet Union and had been welcomed there. He was almost on his death-bed, but he said that the Soviets must never lose, as without them civilisation in the world was threatened. With his support and blessings we formed the Friends of the Soviet Union of which I was the general secretary. That platform helped us.
The British released many of us from jail because at that time we did not support the 1942 Quit India movement. We said that fascism must be defeated and we would not engage in actions that would adversely affect the war effort. Nehru and others said that they too were anti-fascist, but without freedom they could not fight fascism. The Quit India call was given by Gandhi. Our party could fortunately work legally for three or four years.
Because we did not support the 1942 movement, we got completely isolated from the people. But in 1943, the Great Bengal Famine came, and with our little organisation (when I joined, the party had only 5,000 members), we worked for the famine-stricken people in the villages and towns. Thirty lakhs died because of famine. Although our work made us popular and our strength increased, we continued to be isolated politically.
In 1944, my party asked me to do trade union work. I first worked for the port and dock union. I then started building a railway union in the Bengal Assam Railway. We built a powerful union, the B.N. Railway Workers Union. In 1946, I got elected from the Railway Constituency to the government formed by the Muslim League under Suhrawardy.
The riots of 1946, the likes of which we had never seen, broke out. August 16, 1946 was Direct Action Day. In seven or eight days thousands of people - men, women and children - had been killed. I have never seen anything like that. When Suhrawardy thought it was getting out of hand, he wanted to organise a peace committee.
The Communists were in the forefront of the campaign for peace. Bhupesh Gupta and I went to his house in a jeep with red flags. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, was there; so were Suhrawardy's colleagues from the Muslim League whom he addressed outside while we sat in his sitting room. He came in and told us that Shyama Prasad made it clear that he would not join a peace rally if the Communists were part of it. He then laughingly told us that he and Shyama Prasad had organised the riots. About Shyama Prasad, I think it was not right.
Then Gandhiji came to Calcutta. Bhupesh and I met him and asked for his advice on how to stop the rioting. He told us that in his experience if even a small procession could be organised of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs during riots, it usually helped to bring calm. We tried it, but within five minutes the procession had to be disbursed. People did not even listen to Gandhiji. Then the terrible Noakhali riots broke out and he rushed to East Bengal, camped there, and stopped the riots.
Then came 1947, and Independence. We had our second party congress and B.T. Ranadive became general secretary after P.C. Joshi. Mohan Kumaramangalam was also with us and spoke at the meeting. I was against the resolution passed on the political situation, which I thought was ultra-left.
The Left played a very decisive role in the freedom movement. In 1946, the naval ratings in Bombay went on strike. The British admiral said that unless the ratings joined duty within 24 hours he would bomb rebel ships from above. We had a political strike for 24 hours in the railways during this time.
Your memoirs and other histories describe the central part played by the Communist Party and its mass organisations in the struggle for food for the people. It was true of the famine years and of the struggles of the 1960s. It is a struggle that has been resumed in the 2000s. Would you comment on this aspect of Left-led struggle in India.
Although we were for some time in 1942-43 isolated politically from the people, they came to know about us through the social work we did amongst them. We tried to build little social organisations and went amongst the people, trying to get food to them and to save the sick by taking doctors to the area. We formed a doctors' association. That paid dividends despite the fact that we were politically isolated. We were not a very powerful party, but the people appreciated our help for the famine-stricken through our work in several organisations. Thirty lakh people died in that famine.
It was not only in 1943, you took up this issue again and again.
Yes, we took it up again in 1946. By then our party was legal, and we worked in the districts. We worked though the mass organisations we strengthened after Independence - the trade unions, the Kisan Sabha, the Students Federation and women's organisations.
Sixty lakh refugees came when East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was divided from Pakistan. Gandhi had formed a committee for [Partition] refugees, in which I was a member. We fought for them, and were imprisoned because of that. Congressman Dr. B.C. Roy asked us: "Why you are fighting? This is the Centre's job." Nehru had promised refugees citizenship rights but nothing much was done for East Bengal refugees. In Punjab everything was done for the 24 lakh refugees. Here it was 60 lakhs.
After the second party congress in 1948, our party was declared illegal, and all of us were suddenly arrested and detained without trial. In Bengal, there was a committee of Judges headed by the Chief Justice, and we could appeal to that. Around 44-45 Communists, myself amongst them, were in the same prison. I and a few others were released after this application we made. In 1949, I went underground again as I heard that an arrest warrant had been issued against me.
After a year or so, I was arrested again. By then the Constitution had been framed, and under it we went to the High Court for legalising the party and won the case. So our party became legal. I remained an MLA [Member of the Legislative Assembly] till 1952 when the first general elections in independent India were held. Although we had no offices and our organisations were smashed, we still managed to get 28 Communists elected.
By any objective measure, the Left Front government in Bengal has registered remarkable successes in pro-people governance within the framework of the Indian Constitution. In what way has the experience of Left Front rule advanced the goals of the Communist movement in India?
The first matter on our programme was to bring in a three-tiered panchayat. We also decided on reservation for women, and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes in the panchayats. When Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister he came to Calcutta for an Eastern Region Panchayats Conference. He complimented us on our panchayat system as there were no panchayats in Congress-ruled States. He complimented us on the panchayats.
I asked him why he could not form panchayats in States that were under the Congress. He said that nobody would do anything about it unless he brought in Central legislation compelling the States to have panchayats. He did that before he died.
We were initially anxious about how women with no prior experience would work in the panchayats. But they picked up the work. We told our officers to implement our programme and help the thousands who had been elected as panchayat members to run panchayats, to keep accounts books, and so on. We had had six panchayat elections till then, and every time we won a huge majority.
How has the system evolved between then and now?
Seventy per cent of the people live in villages. We came into government in 1977 at a time when there were huge floods, the likes of which we have never seen. Yet, there was no influx from the villages into Kolkata, as there used to be in the past. No people from rural areas crowded railway stations in search of food or shelter in the city, because the panchayats took up their work very earnestly.
So distress-induced migration to Kolkata stopped.
Yes, for the first time. The panchayat members had already built up great experience in handling such situations of distress. That has been continuing.
We distributed about 11,000 acres of land to agricultural labourers and others engaged in agriculture. There was a Land Ceiling Act enacted by the Congress that they never implemented. We made changes in the Act and distributed land. It was a huge affair. That was the main achievement. We also expanded the municipalities. Now there are 126 of them. Elections to the municipalities were held a few months back and we got 85 out of 126.
What has been the impact of land reform on the lives of the peasantry?
The peasants had been demanding two-thirds of the share of the produce. So a very big movement took place in which we played a major role. Soon after the panchayats were formed, we could not find the land documents. The landlords (jotedars) had distributed land in various names, even to their cats and dogs! The Kisan Sabha helped us in this big struggle for land distribution. They said that if land documents could not be found, it did not matter, as they knew which land belonged to whom. By 1978, we had distributed surplus land and enforced the rule of two-thirds of the share. This was Operation Barga. It was a great success.
We told the police not to behave with the people in the way they did during the Congress period. We told them to respect the people. If a poor or illiterate person came to the thana [police station], they were to be asked to sit down, and their complaints recorded. That worked, and after one or two years they dared not behave with them [the people] as they did under the Congress.
With the improvement in agricultural production, thanks to land reform and the panchayats, peasants have been getting two and three crops on their land. On single-crop land a peasant family found it difficult to manage, and the members had to find other work to supplement the family's income. This has brought a fundamental change in their situation. We were also helped by mass organisations, because we had been saying that the party alone cannot do everything, they cannot bring about change without mass organisations that we must be in contact with. So we have the biggest mass organisation of workers, peasants, middle class organisations, students and teachers.
How do you think the successes in agriculture and industry can be taken forward by the Left Front government?
Well, we are the first amongst the States in agricultural production, social forestry and fisheries. After Uttar Pradesh we have the highest potato production. In industrial development, most of the governments in Delhi discriminated against us. For 40 years there was freight equalisation of steel, iron and coal, the raw material for building factories. This means that States 2,000 miles away pay the same rate for iron and steel as West Bengal.
This is all right for five to ten years as other States too need industrialisation. But later on, because of our pressure the Central government did away with that. The Planning Commission concentrated on a few States for industrial development, like Karnataka, Maharasthra and Tamil Nadu, and did not look at States like West Bengal and the small States in the north-eastern region. Industrialists who wanted to set up industry in Bengal were discouraged by the Central government. They were told that the agreement would be signed only if the industry was to be located in a State other than Bengal. So that kind of thing happened for years together.
We adopted an economic policy in which we interacted with industrialists. We told them that it is because of the workers they are making profits. We told them not to look down on the workers, but to discuss production and the objectives of production with them.
We also told workers not to give up their right to strike, but to keep that as the last option. They could discuss their problems with the management, and if that failed, the government and the Labour Minister would hear their case. So in many cases strikes were averted because the government worked out tripartite agreements. Now more investments are coming and are likely to come. Our Ministers are going abroad seeking investments.
Our 1994 policy on foreign capital, which we placed before the Assembly, states that if it is in our interest, we do not mind foreign capital investment. Since this is a capitalist system, the private sector has a big role to play.
What is your policy on disinvestment in West Bengal?
We have said that profitable industries should not be disinvested. We have our State sector undertakings. There are some sick industries, abandoned by the owners. Unfortunately, we had to take them over and pay the workers, and try to revive some of them. So we have not given up all the sick industries of which I think there are about 80. Our Industries Minister is trying to see how they can be revived. If they cannot be revived, we are going to sell them if we find buyers.
We are sure that if we come back to power again, in the next five years, we will be the leading State in industrialisation in India.
There has been much discussion recently on your labour policy, especially the approach to be adopted in relation to the Information Technology labour force.
I told workers not to give up their right to strike but to use that as the ultimate weapon. We gave government employees the right to strike, a right that exists nowhere else in India for them. But not a single strike took place in these 29 years. We have conveyed this to the government we are supporting at the Centre. They want to change labour laws, particularly in the IT sector.
We are discussing this issue in the party and will come to some decision on this in December when we have our Central Committee meeting. There are so many aspects to this issue - that of foreign investment, the 24-hour work cycle on which the IT sector is based, and all that. This is new to us. The IT industry is growing very fast in the State. We now have 24,000 boys and girls working in the sector.
There is also the question of women working at night. You know there is a law against it. But we have to change that law. Women will have to work at night, although they will have to be careful and security must be provided for them. So this is of course a new area that has to be resolved.
Would you speak about the tensions of having to achieve the many objectives of the Left Front within a bourgeois democratic framework?
There is no tension. We have learnt from experience.
Would you say that the Left Front has provided an alternative model of government for India?
The Left Front government has provided an alternative model of government. We don't hide anything from the people. We tell them why we have been able to implement only part of our programme. Take rural electrification, for example. All villages were to be electrified, but as long as I was there, that did not happen. Those villages that did not get power have a grievance. Negative features are there, but we are looking at them and we do not hide them from the people.
In the health sector, 70 per cent of the people who need treatment come to government hospitals in West Bengal. In no other State in India will you find this. But all hospitals are not running very well. Hundreds of hospitals have been built in the villages, but our young boys and girls do not want to go to the villages. Our financial position is such that now we have to give some jobs to contractors. We do not like this very much. Or, take dearness allowance. We were unable to give dearness allowance for a few years, but now we have started doing that.
Social science scholars have pointed out that one of your important contributions to public administration has been to involve mass organisations of the people in formulating and implementing policy. Would you comment on that?
In 1977, after we were sworn in Ministers we were greeted by a huge gathering of people. They wanted me to speak so I told them in a few words that we would not rule from Writers Building alone where the Ministers sit, but would take the help of the people and the employees, for whom we had been fighting while in the Opposition.
We gave the government employees the right to strike. Government employees, who had the largest mass organisation, were with us. We were initially a little anxious about the bureaucracy, but except for a few who didn't like us at all, generally speaking we also got their help.
Government employees are the biggest trade union that we have. They have accepted our programme and we have told them that they must help us implement it. And they have been working very hard. Of course, there are some lazy people who arrive late in the office and go back early and so on, but the organisation itself is looking after that. They have been a great help to us.
What do you see as the reasons for the relatively slow growth of the Communist movement outside of the three States of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura?
West Bengal is not India. We have three governments in the country. We lost the last elections in Kerala, but I think this time we are going to win. Tripura is a very small State of just 33 lakh people in which lots of refugees have come and the tribals have become a minority. To keep them together is a great achievement. However, in our last party congress we said that to expand we cannot depend only on these three States.
We first thought - at least I thought - that the experience of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura would result in the automatic expansion of the party in other States. People would be enthused by the experience of these States. But unfortunately that has not happened. So now the new Polit Bureau is chalking out a programme of where we are weak, and how we must expand.
The expansion of the party and of the mass organisations are both needed.
Especially in the Hindi-speaking belt...
Not only in the Hindi belt, but also in the South. We were so strong in Andhra Pradesh, but where are we now? We have become weak in Tamil Nadu, although the party is now picking up. Similarly in Maharashtra, our trade unions were very strong. After the crisis in the textile industries, we are not that strong.
We do not take up problems of the tribals and the Scheduled Castes. The caste system is a reality and we have to deal with it, but very unfortunately we are not there in many places. We told the party congress delegates that they must take up not only all-India problems but must look into the problems of each State, the problems of the people of each State, and of the poorer sections. Even today in the Congress-ruled States, land really has not been distributed and in fact they are changing land reform laws. We said that this must be opposed even though we are supporting the government from outside on the basis of the Common Minimum Programme.
The Congress is not self-critical. I hope they continue for four years. But we have told Sonia Gandhi, the Prime Minister and others that if they are isolated from the people, it is not us who will take their place, but the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], a communal party, and communal forces like the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad]. The Congress is a bourgeois landlord party, no doubt, but it is not communal. Earlier, we supported their foreign policy. We told them that if they cannot have a non-aligned policy, they must at least have an independent foreign policy. They do not have that. They are listening to America. Right now they are conducting air exercises with the U.S. and we are opposing it.
What explains the near total absence of women in the leadership of the Left movement, both during the freedom struggle and now? Has this historical weakness impeded the growth of the Communist movement?
Yes, that is our negative feature. We did not pay attention to that. This time in the party congress we have taken note of the importance of women not only in the panchayats but in the party leadership, and in the mass organisation leadership. In fact, our experience about their work in the panchayats is very good. They are very sincere about their work. They work at home, look after the children and then go to the office. So we should take advantage of that and see that the Women's Reservation Bill that the BJP had stalled is passed in the winter session of Parliament.
So you think this weakness is now being overcome.
Yes, I think so, as women are coming more and more into the mass organisations and the leadership of the party.
Has the communist movement in India failed to address effectively the issues of caste and caste-based oppression?
We have not paid sufficient attention to caste. Most of the working people are not organised in trade unions, not even in West Bengal. The party and trade unions together can bring about changes in the political situation and in the hold of caste. There is still untouchability in Tamil Nadu, and we have not looked into that. We are trying to correct all this. Let us see what happens in the next three years.
Now that you have retired from active politics are you able to do things that you did not have time for earlier? Like bringing your memoirs up to date, for example?
At this age and with my health, I cannot do much work. What I used to do earlier I cannot do now. That is why I asked the party to relieve me of all duties, but they refused. They asked me to stay on.
So, man is born, he grows old, he dies. I am happy about West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura, and I hope that we shall implement the programme our party has taken up for the next three years.
In the introduction to your memoirs you said that you wrote them to help those who are striving to make the world a better place to live in.
Yes, that is our objective, a classless society.
Is the world closer to that goal?
That will take a longer time now, of that I am sure, because of what has happened in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The positive side to the situation is that China, which has the largest population in the world, is working towards what the Chinese call Marxism-Leninism with Chinese characteristics. We are studying what they are actually doing. We never thought of that - one country, two systems.
They are growing very fast, and although there is still unemployment in China, they look after the unemployed. But people from the villages come to the city, crowding it in search of jobs. They do not hide these problems from the people. Vietnam, which I have visited, is also doing very well.
So, we are still optimistic about our objectives. It will take time. Perhaps not in my lifetime, but later on. We hope for the best.