Calcutta Notebook


March 2014 is the month of the birth centenary of Saroj Kumar Datta, the intellectual who, after long associations with the CPI and the CPI(M), finally cast his lot with the CPI(M-L) and ended his life in the process. He was arrested from a house of South Kolkata, in the mid-night of August 4, taken to the maidan area and shot dead on 5th August 1971. It was impossible for the police chiefs of Kolkata and West Bengal to concoct the story of an encounter, and hence they denied having any knowledge of his arrest.

Saroj Datta, born on 13 March 1914, was a bright student of English literature, and studied at the Scottish Church Collge and University of Calcutta. He was an assistant editor of the weekly journal Arani, which was regarded as a legal platform of the then banned Communist Party of India. Thereafter he joined the well-known English daily, Amrita Bazar Patrika. This association, however, did not last long. He led a strike of the employees for better pay and was dismissed from service. After some time, he became a wholetime worker of the Communist Party of India and was on the editorial board of its daily Bengali organ Dainik Swadhinata. As a young man, he was associated not only with Arani, but with some other journals also. His debate with Samar Sen on the nature of progressive poetry was reprinted much later. Saroj Datta's criticism of Samar Sen was, any sensible reader would possibly agree, was to some extent one-sided, but his sharpness as a writer was revealed in the two essays.

When Saroj Datta was an activist of the CPI, he translated two books, Maxim Gorky's Pamphlets and Romain Rolland's I Will Not Stop. In Bengali translations they were named Nana Lekha and Shilpir Nabajanma. He also translated Brecht's and Patrice Lumumba's poems. After the India-China border dispute, the government began a witch-hunt against Communists and Saroj Datta was imprisoned. Then the party was split and the CPI(M) was formed. At that time, the Sino-Soviet debate concerning the political-ideological questions facing the international communist movement came out in public and Saroj Datta firmly took the side of the Chinese. After release from jail, he contributed regularly to the CPI(M)'s weekly organ Deshhitaishi. Inside the CPI(M) too there was a debate on the desirability of the parliamentary path, and Saroj Datta was on the side of the left. When the Naxalbari peasant uprising took place in May-June 1967, Saroj Datta, along with his veteran colleague Sushital Raychaudhuri, the then editor of the weekly, openly supported it and as a result, was expelled from the party. Deshhitaishi having been taken over by the official leadership of the party, the dissidents brought out two new papers, Deshabrati (in Bengali) and Liberation. These papers served as the organs of the ALL-India Co-ordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries and the CPI(M-L).

After the Naxalbari uprising, the All-India Co-ordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries were formed, and Saroj Datta was associated with it. Then the CPI(M-L) was formed, and some prominent Naxalite personalities remained outside it. Thereafter the idea of acceptance of Charu Majumdar as the revolutinary authority and an all-pervasive left adventurist and sectarian line of thinking gripped the CPI (M-L), which failed to distinguish between friends and foes. The upshot was a total disaster. Saroj Datta did not live to realize this disastrous nature of the line of action he himself had upheld with much fury. But his faith in Charu Majumdar's authority was unflinching, and even after the then Communist Party of China criticized many aspects of this left adventurism, he did not lose this faith. At a party meeting, he even referred to Charu Majumdar as the guru of the Indian Revolution. Such sort of fetishism was not beneficial either to the acolyte or to the high priest, as later history abundantly proved. In his last article, he upheld the political line of Charu Majumdar and of the CPI(M-L) party congress of May 1970. One day after writing this piece, he was arrested and killed. The police did not have the courage to put him up for trial, and they realized that the story of an 'encounter' would not be credible at all. So they resorted to the only option available to them; they denied the event altogether.

When rebellious students and youths began to attack the statues of political leaders and the luminaries of Bengali renaissance, Saroj Datta, instead of checking them, wrote a few pieces endorsing these activities. These pieces were one-sided and sectarian in their approach, and often contradicted Saroj Datta's own earlier writings. Yet he raised one important point: the anti-British peasant uprisings in the colonial period and the Bengali intellectuals' role. It is no wonder that prominent Bengali intellectuals of the seventies, barring a few honourable exceptions, preferred to keep silent on the issue of Saroj Datta's killing. Saroj Datta, with his sharp pen, tried to break the intellectual-cultural hegemony of this class and hence to this class his killing by the police did not appear an undesirable act.

A little digression may be made here. The CPI (M)'s two Bengali papers, Deshhitaishi and Ganshakti, did not publish the news at all. This extraordinary reticence on their part might have been due to the inclination on their part to crush the Naxalites, if necessary with police help. Many years later, however, Saroj Mukherjee, the secretary of the West Bengal State Committee of the CPI(M), told the press about the killing of Saroj Datta, but did not ask for any investigation and punishment of the guilty. Only Frontier and Darpan (Mirror), the latter a Bengali weekly that no more exists, published the news immediately after the incident, although Saroj Datta had, in one of his articles in Deshabrati, scurrilously and unjustifiably attacked Frontier. Again, in the wake of the ouster of the Congress in the parliamentary polls and the assembly polls of 1977, the CPI (M) filled the walls of Kolkata with the demand for the punishment of Indira Gandhi, but scrupulously refrained from demanding the punishment of Siddhartha Ray. This demand was raised from some quarters, but that was not strong enough to force the Left Front Government and its chief Jyoti Basu to take any initiative. Once Siddhratha Ray was out of danger, the CPI(M) resumed its anti-Siddhratha crusade, particularly when Siddhartha Ray tried to contest the polls. One aged woman supporter of the CPI(M) told this correspondent in 1986, ‘‘We have defeated Siddhartha Ray at the polls; this is enough punishment for him’’. Such clever talks were merely a device to evade the responsibility of trying and punishing Siddhartha Ray in accordance with the Indian Penal Code. There is a surmise, shared by many, that prosecuting Siddhrtha Ray would have been embarassing for Jyoti Basu for personal reasons.

As was learnt later, the file on Saroj Datta disappeared from the Kolkata police headquarters. Ostensibly the Kolkata Police did not want to leave any record of this criminal deed of theirs. When Saroj Datta was killed, Mr Arun Prasad Mukherjee, who later became the DG (Police) of West Bengal, was the deputy commissioner of the special branch of Kolkata Police. Police officers who earned fame (or obloquy) for extra-legal "encounter" killings, namely Ranjit Gupta, Debi Ray and Runu Guha-Neogy, are now dead, but Mr Mukherjee is still alive. Those who are commemorating Saroj Datta's memory must ask and force Mr Mukherjee to reveal the truth.


Vol. 46, No. 38, Ma r30 - Apr 5, 2014