Samar Sen

The Sense of Commitment-I

Partha Chatterjee

[Following is a speach delivered by the author in Bengali, at Sisir Mancha, Kolkata, on January 13, 2015, on the occasion of the publication of two volumes of Samar Sen’s diaries. Translation by Anirban Biswas.]

Samar Sen died in 1987. I would not have been surprised if the people of Kolkata or, for that matter, West Bengal had forgotten him. The immortal feats of 'Great Men' are referred to in their biographies. Samar Sen did not perform any such feats. He did not belong to any party or institution or group. He had only some intimate friends and possibly a handful of charmed readers of his poems written in his youth, who still recite in their minds a few of them. In order to earn his living, he taught at colleges, served in an advertisement concern, worked abroad as a translator. For the greater part of his working life, he was, however, a journalist, and was the creator of two weeklies. He was with one of them for three years, and the other continues to be published, thanks to the incredible perseverance of his colleague, Timir Basu. Most of the pieces written by him as a journalist are unsigned editorials. Yet why are such commemorations as the present one organized? His letters and diaries contain minute details of his personal and family life. Excepting the Moscow diaries published today, they contain scarcely any thought or comment having any larger significance. Why should Pulak Chanda then collect the relevant materials with great pain and have them published, and why should a publisher like the Dey's publish them? Again, why should we read them with interest? Has Samar Babu then, in our eyes, become a Mahapurush (Great Man), or at least a big hero?

I do not mean to say this by way of a joke. Rather I wish to discuss the subject seriously. To us, Samar Babu is a rare personality. But in what sense? What do we see in his character or deeds, which gives the impression that this man was unlike others, of a quite different kind or of an ideal type? What was that rare quality?

Let us first take up his career as a journalist? Samar Babu once held a top post in the English daily of a large newspaper-group of Kolkata. In January 1964, ghastly communal riots broke out in West Bengal and East Pakistan. Then, in a meeting of the editors of different newspapers with the Chief Minister, Prafulla Chandra Sen, it was decided that reports of riots in East Pakistan would not be given front-page coverage for some time so as not to aggravate communal tension. Only the reports of the Press Trust of India would be published, and photographs of rioting or interviews with riot-stricken refugees would be withheld from publication. At that time, a foreign journalist reported that at least ten thousand Hindus had been killed in the Adamji Jute Mill of Narayanganj. The newspaper group in which Samar Babu worked published a highly exaggerated version of the report in its Bengali daily. Samar Babu told the proprietor of the newspaper group that he did not want the report to be published in the English daily. The proprietor replied that it was for Samar Babu and his staff to decide what was to be published in the English daily. Then Samar Babu said that the stuff published in the Bangla daily produced a nauseating impact on him, to which the proprietor's reply was that he had anticipated the possibility of such a reaction. Three or four days later, Samar Babu, glancing through the English daily in the morning, found that the report had been published with a large coverage, although he was completely in the dark. Going to the office, he learnt that it had been done at the order of the proprietor. He instantly sent his letter of resignation.

The tale, indeed, is heroic enough. The hero had differences with the proprietor on matters of policy, and since he was unwilling to sacrifice his principles and act as a servant, he resigned his post. We have witnessed similar phenomena in many Bangla novels, plays and films. We are accustomed to seeing this genre of upright and outspoken Bnegali middle-class heroes. Hence if Samar Babu is considered our hero, this tale must remain a remarkable episode in the chronicle of his life.

But two remarks made by Samar Babu on this episode create some confusion. The first one is there in the appendix to his book Babu Brittanta (A Babu's Tale). There the directive served on Samar Babu and other journalists on the publication of reports from East Pakistan—the directive was issued in accordance with the discussions of the editors with the Chief Minister—is reproduced with Samar Babu's comment, "Now-a-days, it may appear to be an interference with freedom of press. But should the press be allowed unrestricted freedom in times of communal riots"?i It means that he was well-aware that the principle which made him resign his post did not embody an unassailable truth and that it might have two sides, and strong arguments could be given for each. Indeed, what was the correct principle to be followed by a professional journalist? Should he/she brush aside the question of possible reaction, disregard the request of the government and give publicity to the actual facts? Or should he suppress the news for the sake of mitigating violence and excitement? This question is a subject of debate even today. In the particular situation of 1964, Samar Babu leaned on one side and had to take an important personal decision, for which he had subsequently to pay a heavy price. But he did not forget that what he chose as a matter of principle was essentially his personal judgment and did not have any universal acceptability, or at least it was not beyond question.

The second remark, also contained in Babu Brittanta, is made where Samar Babu is reminiscing on that episode. After narrating the event of resignation, he writes, "The hastily penned letter of resignation did not mention the real reason. There was rather a tone of injured feeling. I lost the opportunity to make a principled, fiery statement and in consequence, the entire issue remained at a personal level; it could not become a weapon against communalism. Others say this."ii If a film were made on Samar Babu's life, this comment would certainly have been deleted from the script. The reason is that it is not at all something that befits a hero. Would a hero, who took no time in giving up his job owing to a difference of opinion with his employer, exclaim after coming out of his office, "My Goodness! I have forgotten to write about the principle in my letter of resignation." Was it due to the lack of time that Smar Babu did not refer to the conflict of opinion in his letter? Or was it due to his awareness that there could exist diverse opinions on a disputed principle? Or did he hesitate to make such a statement owing to the thought that it would be much too dramatic? Mind it, the remark, ‘I lost the opportunity to make a principled, fiery statement' was not his, but others’. It is not difficult to imagine that among his friends and acquaintances, quite a few told him after the incident, "Since you resigned after all, you could give a good publicity to the matter of principle. Even if you did not mention it in your letter, you could make a statement later on, or hold a press conference. At least this extremely important political issue could have been given a circulation." This is exactly what we expect to find in the lives of political heroes. But the episode of his resignation makes it clear beyond an iota of doubt that he did not at all wish to be the hero. Had he wished, he could have utilized the many opportunities available to him to pour out hero-like dialogues in public before and after resignation. But he did not, even when he was writing his memoirs after many years. Samar Babu's character lacked the stuff of which epic heroes are made.

Let me now come to the tale of his experiences as the editor of Now. The journal saw the light of day in October 1964. On behalf of the owners, Humayun Kabir, Samar Babu's onetime professor who was then a member of the cabinet of the central Congress government, invited him to take the responsibility of the editor. The combined voice of the colleagues whom Samar Babu had gathered for writing for Now made it famous as a leftist journal. Humayun Kabir, although expressing occasional embarrassment, never interfered with editorial decisions. He did not express any resentment even when one or two pieces written by him for Now were not published. In his autobiography, Samar Babu writes, "He had a professorial, liberal attitude. It is my belief that much of what was published in Now damaged his position in central politics."iii But at the time of the 1967 polls, which led to the United Front coming to power in West Bengal, Humayun Kabir got actively involved in the changing politics of West Bengal. During that period, he once summoned Samar Babu and said that two articles of his, written on the Bangla Congress, were to be printed as editorials in the next issue. Samar Babu replied that articles on that subject had been commissioned from another writer. When Mr Kabir said that no other editorial could be published, Samar Babu replied "In that case, both of us should go to the court of the Chief Presidency Magistrate without delay." Mr Kabir was surprised and asked for the reason, to which Samar Babu replied that it was the rule to declare the change of editorship before that very court. Humayun Kabir then softened and said that it would be enough to print the two articles not as editorials, but as articles from a correspondent. In the articles, the Bangla Congress was supported clearly, and Kabir's name was there more than once. His name was omitted from the printed article. When the United Front Government was functioning, Now ordinarily supported the Government. In November 1967, Now published severe criticisms of the dismissal of the United Front Government and imposition of President's Rule.

One day Samar Babu was directed to quit the post of editor. Prior to that, Humayun Kabir, in a personal letter to Samar Babu, wrote that the journal had of late become the mouthpiece of a particular political coterie, and that the trustees were not willing to allow the journal to back such anti-national outfits.iv In Babu Brittanta, Samar Babu writes, "I resisted the order for the first two or three weeks, but then I found that since the money belonged to the Nation Trust, it was not possible to fight a lone battle."v Samar Babu left Now. Naturally he had no doubt about freedom of thought or the right to express one's own opinion. But he did not deny his limitation about how and where to express it.

The matter became much clearer during the Frontier period. It may appear that by bringing out Frontier, Samar Babu gave a fitting reply to his unjust dismissal from NOW. Now there was no question of depending on the wealthy patron. The new paper was brought out with the help of friends and well wishers by forming a trust under his own supervision. The expected amount of initial capital could not be collected. But the circulation of the paper surpassed expectations and hence, the paper became self-financing and there was no difficulty in running it in the initial phase. In the midst of events like the Bangladesh war, dominance of Indira Congress, suppression of Naxalites, political feuds etc, those whose voice had no place in large papers or those who were only abused as anti-nationals found a space in Frontier.

Then came the Emergency. Although burdened with the trouble of censorship Samar Babu did not stop publishing the paper. Initially he, in conformity with the rules, used to go to the Writers' Building and submit the copies to the relevant authorities. Often the censored copies were not returned in time, causing delays in publication. Hence he stopped submitting copies. If any objections were raised later, the responsibility would definitely fall on the editor. From history, we learn that when Rammohun Roy, the first great man of modern Bengal, was publishing his Persian journal Mirat-ul-Akhbar, the Press Regulation was imposed in 1823, and the editors of all papers were required to apply to the government for obtaining the license of publication. Rammohun protested and said that such sort of genuflection only for expression of opinion was impossible for any self-respecting person. He stopped the publication of his paper. But Samar Babu did not. His explanation is "Sometimes it seemed that it was meaningless to continue running the paper in this manner. But men are prisoners of habit and livelihood. A few persons would be rendered unemployed if the paper ceased to exist".vi Here too Samar Babu did not exhibit any heroism characteristic of a great hero.

During the period of the Emergency, the police once confiscated the press in which Frontier was printed. It was not due to Frontier, but another paper, which was also printed there. The axe of censorship fell on that paper. For a few weeks, publication of Frontier had to be suspended. Then it again began to be printed in another small press. In the diary he then used to maintain, I find that he was utterly frustrated by the functioning of the new press, which, being a small one, could not deliver the proofs in time and could not correct the errors according to the revised proof. Yet Frontier continued to be published. After the Emergency period, when Samar Babu was writing Babu Brittanta in 1978, he made a small remark on Frontier, "Ten years have rolled by. Now it often seems to me that Gharer Kheye Baner Mosh Tariyechhi (I have chased wild buffaloes, implying that I have made futile endeavours, at my expense). It is however beyond the capacity of a paper to chase Indian buffaloes)."vii

When the Left Front government got settled securely, the politics of West Bengal largely calmed down. The political opinion representing those who stood left to the parliamentary left had a room, but the force of the earlier movement and the clarity of ideology largely faded. The wild buffaloes that the paper had been chasing were now tamed and got a shelter in household sheds. Frontier felt the impact. The primary capital was meagre, sale was on the decline, the few advertisements that appeared came largely through personal connections. The cost of publication was, on the other hand, mounting rapidly. I find from a letter by Samar Babu, written during this period, to his daughter Juthika that he had no end of anxiety regarding Frontier. From those letters and diaries, I find further that like other ordinary householders, Samar Babu was managing his household responsibilities, illness and other various problems of daily life. Perhaps he had to manage them in a greater measure than others. From the account given by his granddaughter Brinda alias Bandil, I learn that during those days, Samar Babu took Rupees 800 only as his monthly salary from Frontier. He used second-class monthly tickets of tramcars for travelling regularly from the Gariahat tram depot to Dharmatala.viii

Around that time, I became a member of the circle of writers for Frontier on his invitation. The responsibility was not large. I had to write an editorial piece once every two weeks. The piece had to be submitted on Mondays, and two or three days before, Samar Babu informed me of the topic of writing via telephone. I got up in early morning on Mondays and wrote the editorial piece. From my house, his residence was five minutes' walk. I used to hand over the piece to him before he left for office. One morning, there was some delay, in finishing it entirely due to my own fault. I came out and went almost running, to find him waiting for me in front of the Gariahat tram depot. He told me, "An Esplanade-bound tram starts from inside the depot; getting into it ensures a seat." I then said, "But it leaves after long intervals." Samar Babu replied, "I have no boss, and hence nobody will rebuke me if there is some delay in reaching the office." At that time he was possibly seventy. Today I have no hesitation in admitting that even in those days, I was haunted by the question why Samar Babu, at this old age and with such great pain, had to run the paper. What was his compulsion?"

Here too he was conscious of his limitation. In 1979, his friends once thought of raising a somewhat larger sum of money and giving Frontier a new appearance. By then, new technologies like photo type-setting, offset printing etc had come to India and the appearance of English news magazines had begun to change rapidly. In that milieu, Frontier, which was hand-composed and was printed on newsprint, definitely did not seem quite the thing. Samar Babu did not resist the well-meant effort of his friends, but himself did not feel much enthused. I find his own admission in his diary, "I am unable to say what are the things to be done and what will be the expenses for running Frontier on a large-scale. I am tired. Besides, it is my habit to run the paper painstakingly at low expenses. I do not have any experience of big-budget papers".ix You all know that Frontier, till date, has kept up the old appearance.

Yet despite his reluctance to come out of all the constraints, hesitations and accustomed way of living characteristic of a middle-class gentleman, Samar Babu used to protest against what he thought unjust. He did so often with some risk and even when there was nobody to stand by him. I have already given examples. Samar Babu then, in a small article, narrated a small event of the Emergency period. On that day he, as usual, alighted from the tramcar at the Dharmatala Street stop of his office to find that passengers without tickets were being arrested. Possibly the people were being reminded that it was the anusashan parva, the period of strict discipline, and that no violation of the rules would be tolerated. Some conductors and policemen were examining the tickets of passengers alighting from the tramcar and were forcing those without tickets into a police van. When Samar Babu was asked about his ticket, he replied that he had a monthly ticket. As the conductor wanted to see it, he suddenly said, " I would certainly have shown it had I been in the tramcar, but I am not bound to show my ticket on the street." After some amount of exchange of arguments about legal rights, he had also to get into the police van and go to the police station. In this article, Samar Babu described the various sights that he witnessed in the police station in short, unadorned sentences written in his inimitable style. About ten to twelve persons were arrested. After their cases had been put in a register, each one was fined twenty-five rupees, failing they had to spend the night in the police lock-up. Samar Babu remained seated. When he asked about his case, he was told that since he had raised the point of law, his case was different and he would have to wait. Meanwhile his monthly had been examined and it was found a valid one. Still the two conductors who were in the tramcar behaved as if they had done their duty and now the matter was in the hands of the police, about which they had no independent opinion. Two and a half hours later, the officer-in-charge came and hearing the incident asked whether there was any necessity to court so much trouble by raising the legal point. Samar Babu replied, "We Bengalis like to debate on legal niceties. But the disease has been cured after being brought to the police station." The officer-in-charge wrote a general diary and ordered his release.

This narrative does not contain a trace of heroism. Rather it contains his characteristic modesty, and self-deprecation, a natural reluctance to talk about his own deeds. His last remarks have seemed extremely significant to me, "After coming out, I again got into a tramcar. Ticket? I said that I had a monthly. The conductor did not want to see it. When after saying 'monthly', I am asked to show it, my head starts to boil. Disbelieving me? That is my petty-bourgeois egotism. Even in the anusashan parva, I cannot erase the scar of Bidura. Later, as I reflected on the experience of about two and a half hours, I thought that many of those without tickets of 15 to 25 paise cannot pay the fine of 25 rupees. If they fail to contact their kinsmen, should they be put into the lock up? When I recall the faces of those two conductors, I feel most disturbed. Their behaviour was so unfeeling, almost inhuman. Is it because they were once members of some leftist union and now were in another union?"x Although Samar Babu dismissed his own protest as petty-bourgeois egotism, he, by way of criticizing the behaviour of two tram conductors in an unexpected manner, brought up subjects like social responsibility, sense of duty etc. Such open criticism by us, professed leftists, may seem unjustified. The tram conductors were doing their duty as instructed in order not to lose their jobs and although they had full knowledge of what really happened, it was not their duty to express their independent opinion—we have accepted this as axiomatic. But is it really so? Shouldn't we have any desire to express our independent opinion on right and wrong, truth and falsehood, which falls outside the purview of duty only. Why should it be 'desire' only? Why shouldn't we consider it our responsibility? In that brief, caustic remark, Samar Babu has raised this large question. ooo      [to be concluded]

Vol. 47, No. 35, Mar 8 - 14, 2015