Jyoti Basu: A Pre-eminent Leader

By Prakash Karat

JYOTI Basu is no more. Though he was 95 and was becoming fragile by the day, his departure is traumatic for the entire Party and has saddened people all over the country. The people of West Bengal feel bereaved. This is because Jyoti Basu was woven into the very fabric of the Communist movement. When we recall the Tebhaga movement, the struggle against the communal carnage during partition, the great mass movements after independence such as the food movement of 1959, the land struggles of the sixties, the fight against semi-fascist terror, Jyoti Basu is inseparable from all these events.

When the CPI(M) was formed in 1964, West Bengal was not the strongest unit of the Party. It was built up by the correct strategy and tactics adopted, in which Jyoti Basu alongwith Promode Dasgupta, played a key role. If Promode Dasgupta worked to build the Party organisation, brick by brick, Jyoti Basu provided the leadership for the political campaigns, the mass movements and the leadership in the legislature.

Jyoti Basu was the last surviving member of the original nine-member Polit Bureau constituted in 1964. He saw his colleagues departing one by one. A K Gopalan, Promode Dasgupta, P Sundarayya, P Ramamurthi, M Basavapunniah, B T Ranadive, EMS Namboodiripad and finally Harkishan Singh Surjeet. They were all leaders who belonged to the generation which began their political life in the anti-imperialist struggle.

Jyoti Basu became acquainted with Marxism through the British Communist Party, while studying abroad. He came back and joined the Communist Party and straight away began work in the trade union movement of the railway workers. One of the distinctive contributions of Jyoti Basu was the way he integrated work in the legislature with the people's movements and workers struggles outside. Jyoti Basu was elected to the Bengal legislature in 1946 before independence. From then onwards, for more than five decades, he effectively utilised his presence in the legislature for developing and strengthening the Party's influence and movements outside. When the Tebhaga movement of the peasantry began in 1947, Jyoti Basu extensively toured the districts where the movement was taking place for a first hand report and raised the issue effectively in the assembly.
In 1953, he became the secretary of the Provincial Committee of the CPI and continued in this post till 1961. During these eight years, big movements took place such as the food movement of 1959 in which 80 people were killed in police firing and lathicharges. Jyoti Basu, as secretary of the Party, was in the forefront of this movement while relentlessly raising the demands of the people on food inside the assembly.

Earlier, when the school teachers' strike took place in February 1954, many leaders of the school teachers association and the Party were arrested. There was a warrant for the arrest of Jyoti Basu and the police kept a vigil outside the assembly on the opening day of the session to arrest him. Jyoti Basu managed to enter the assembly and stayed for around a week inside the premises where the police could not enter. He was able to raise the issue of the teachers’ strike inside the assembly and came out to attend the teachers rally and got arrested. Here was a striking example of how Jyoti Basu, as a legislator, utilised the assembly to champion the cause of the working people.

Jyoti Basu was a man of great personal courage. In July 1969, when he was the home minister, a mob of policeman invaded the assembly building, having been instigated to do so after a policeman was killed in the clash. They smashed up furniture inside the assembly and entered Jyoti Basu's room. Jyoti Basu calmly faced the rampaging policemen and firmly told them to stop such behaviour. Taken aback by his composure, the policemen quietly left his room.

One saw the same calmness and demeanour when there was an assassination attempt at the Patna railway station in 1970. When bullets were fired at him, a comrade who had come to receive him at the station and was standing next to him was killed.

After the pioneering role of the first Communist ministry headed by EMS Namboodiripad in Kerala in 1957-59, it was Jyoti Basu who showed how Communist participation in the state government should be utilised to strengthen the democratic movement. During the two stints of the United Front government between 1967-1970, as the home minister, he did not allow the police to intervene in the struggles of the workers and the peasants. During the land struggle which swept Bengal, Jyoti Basu declared that the government would not obstruct the peasants who were identifying the benami lands and taking them over. It is this experience which helped the CPI(M) to formulate its approach and tactics while working in the state governments.

The biggest contribution of Jyoti Basu came with the formation of the Left Front government in 1977, of which he became the chief minister. The remarkable record of the Left Front government for over three decades owes a lot to Jyoti Basu's leadership of the government for an unbroken 23 years. It was under his stewardship that the road map for land reforms was chalked out and implemented. These path-breaking reforms led to 1.1 million acres of land being distributed to 2.5 million landless and marginal farmers and 1.53 million bargadars (sharecroppers) being registered and provided security of tenure.
Side by side, with the land reforms instituted, the three-tier panchayat system was revitalised by decentralisation of powers. Much before 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, West Bengal showed the way in democratising the panchayat system. An achievement which is taken for granted today is the establishment of a secular atmosphere in the state. Bengal, before independence, witnessed the rise of communal politics and partition saw large-scale communal violence. But the rise of the Left movement and the establishment of the Left Front government laid the basis for a major transformation. Jyoti Basu symbolised the firm adherence to secularism not only in West Bengal but the entire country. All minorities felt protected and lived free from communal attacks. The whole country praised the firm stand of Jyoti Basu which prevented any attack on the Sikh minority in West Bengal after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

By the 1980s, Jyoti Basu's stature as a national leader saw him playing a major role in implementing the CPI(M) political line. By the 1990s, no other leader among the non-Congress secular parties commanded as much respect as Jyoti Basu did.

Throughout, Jyoti Basu remained a dedicated Communist. He was an extremely disciplined person. It reflected in small details. Whenever he attended Polit Bureau or Central Committee meetings, if he had to leave the meeting early for some official work in Kolkata, he would always request permission to do so.

Jyoti Basu spoke out on issues he felt strongly about in the Party forums but would always abide by the collective decision. In 1996, after the Central Committee decided not to join the government, he repeatedly stated in Party meetings that the decision taken should be accepted as the minority has to abide by the majority decision. This, he said, was the principle of democratic centralism adhered to by our Party.
Jyoti Basu was clear that a person should not continue in positions for ever. He repeatedly asked the Party, from 1998, to relieve him from the chief ministership due to his advancing age and ill-health. It was only in 2000, six months before the assembly elections, that the Party agreed to his request. He also insisted that the Party relieve him from the Polit Bureau, a request that was not acceded to till the 19th Congress of the Party. Even then, the Central Committee decided he should continue as a special invitee to the Polit Bureau.

His absence will be felt most of all in the Polit Bureau of which he was a part for nearly 45 years. For those of us who came into the Party leadership three decades later and thereafter, there was much to learn from him. Even when he could not attend meetings in the recent years, we used to seek his advice.

During the past few years, Jyoti Basu would often pose the question why the Party is not developing outside the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. He would constantly stress the need to build the Party and the mass organisations in the states where we are weak. This should be taken as his last wish and desire. It is upto us to fulfill his direction.

Jyoti Basu has passed into history. But he will remain alive in the hearts of the people – the workers, peasants, agricultural workers and employees for whom he ceaselessly worked. Few leaders in independent India, can claim to have contributed to deepening democracy and strengthening the secular edifice as much as Jyoti Basu has done.
For the CPI(M), he will always remain a leader to be emulated and a Communist par excellence.

No comments: