The Historic Exit

‘Now’ sans Samar Sen

Aloke Mukherjee

In the turbulent sixties of the last century, Samar Sen's appointment as the editor of NOW, which was going to be published by Humayun Kabir, a well-known academic, poet and politician was a phenomenon in itself in the world of journalism in India. Likewise, the exit of Samar Sen from NOW was a phenomenon, furnishing the example of an editor sticking to his ideals of democracy and socialism rather than the pelf and power of the office of an established journal, which had acquired popularity by virtue of the personal ability and imagination of the editor himself. All these happened in a particular period in the 1960s. That was a time when the world was experiencing earth-shaking events taking place in waves one after another. Grave economic and political crises were engulfing the imperialist order. The balance of forces established by the imperialist powers after World War II was crumbling. The neo-colonial method of rule for loot and plunder of the colonies and semi-colonies, which had replaced the old colonial method, was facing the wrath of the people in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the fifties, British imperialism, after the Suez crisis, lost its power of military adventure in the east of Suez. The US imperialists were mortally afraid of a defeat in Vietnam as well as in Laos and Kampuchea (then known as Cambodia). In the USA itself, huge protest marches against the Vietnam War and also in support of the rights of the Afro-Americans became the order of the day. Workers were rising in revolt in Europe.

At the same time, the Socialist Camp that had come into existence after the World War II, and especially after the success of the Chinese Revolution, was breaking up. While the Soviet Union was endeavouring to come to terms with the imperialist powers by advancing the slogan of three 'peacefuls'—peaceful coexistence, peaceful competition and peaceful transition—the Chinese were propagating the idea of a New Era of total collapse of imperialism and total victory of the proletariat. The Cultural Revolution in China was impinging on the thought-process of students and youths all over the world. Cuba shot out of the sphere of US influence by ousting the Batista regime, and more so after the missile crisis.

India was in the midst of economic and political turmoils. Within a span of three years, the Government of India fought two wars against two of its neighbours—China and Pakistan—in 1962 and 1965 respectively. Huge military expenditures without any tangible reason for war had heavy impacts on the economy. The rupee had to be devalued. Ashok Mehta, the Planning Minister, announced on US soil that the womb of India's economy was open for foreign capital. Industries were pulling down their shutters one after another, and agricultural production was critically low. A grave food crisis hit several parts of the country, especially West Bengal. India had to depend on rotten rice and wheat supplied by the USA under Public Law 480. The political order was falling to pieces. The Congress was split into two parts. So was the Communist Party of India. In this backdrop, NOW was being published by a body named Nation Trust with the declared objective of acting as the voice of democracy and propagation of liberal ideas. Behind the launching of NOW was a person who had long been associated with the establishment, serving as a central minister and holding other important offices. He and his associates needed an editor with impeccable integrity, distinct vision and personal acceptability among progressive intellectuals. They did not have any better choice than Samar Sen, the well-known poet-turned journalist. Within weeks of hitting the news stands, NOW became very popular among the progressive people who could understand English. The readership was heterogeneous, from professors to professionals, research workers, and students to political activists, even a section of advanced toilers. What was the magic behind this attraction?

There lay the acumen of a great editor. In NOW, one could find excellent analyses of current political affairs, along with exposures of the political and economic policies of the powers-that-be. In NOW one could find many topical issues relating to the international working class movement. At the same time it was a forum for intense debates on the new developments in the economy, the policies of the ruling elites, the international communist movement etc. Above all, there was the attraction for the editorials. Some of these debates were of superlative academic brilliance as well as of educative value to political activists. One example is the debate between Mohit Sen and Paresh Chattopadhyaya (Monitor). Such was the standard of NOW that very soon it became popular beyond the boundaries of West Bengal. Its readership spread to other states of India and even beyond. Samar Sen's employer was also happy with the developments. But there was a hiccup. Samar Sen's propensity to look at the issues from the point of view of the ordinary people—workers and peasants—not of the elitist middle-class, was causing embarassment to the owner of the weekly. But so far as it did not directly oppose the political interests of the employer, it could not be overlooked. This would also enable the employer to pose as a liberal person. So, strong opposition to the economic policies of the government was acceptable, as was the criticisms directed against the foreign policies.

But things began to change from 1966 onwards. The scathing criticisms of the West Bengal Government's bid to suppress people's movements were on the one hand helpful to the political interests of the employer, but on the other it was strengthening the radical ideas among the people. At that time, Humayun Kabir, the employer, left the Congress. In early 1967, Humayun Kabir was instrumental in building up a West Bengal-based party with the rebels from the Congress led by Ajay Mukherjee. The name of the party was the Bangla Congress. So, Kabir developed a specific interest in the governance of West Bengal. He felt that NOW should help the Bangla Congress in gaining the support of progressive intellectuals of West Bengal. So, he did not mean much in other articles and debates, but wanted the editorials to help him. He knew that the list of contributors that Samar Sen had gathered for NOW was enviable for any journal. The list included Nirad C Chaudhuri, who wrote regular commentaries, Asok Mitra, the economist, who wrote ‘Calcutta Diary’ under the nom de plume Charan Gupta, Asok Rudra, the famous economist, Utpal Datta, the famous actor and playwright, Sankar Ghosh, the noted journalist, and many such well known liberal, secular and anti-establishment personalities. Kabir did not insist on any change in that. But he felt that some restraints in the matter of editorials and ‘Calcutta Diary’ were necessary, because these were not just theoretical supports to any particular ideology, but practical supports to radical activities. During 1965-66, the members of the Trust often felt uneasy with the editorials at different times, but their political ambitions made them subdue their disaffections.

Things began to take a different turn just from the period immediately preceding the General Elections of 1967. Before the polls, West Bengal had gone through bitter struggles against the Congress Government headed by Prafulla Chandra Sen. Even after ruthless police firing and killing of students and workers, the government could not stop the food movement from spreading to all parts of West Bengal. Large numbers of protesters were sent to jail, but that could not deter the movement. A section of the left CPI were already behind the bars because they had opposed the jingoism spread by the Government of India during the Indo-Pak war of 1965. However, these leaders were released after a large movement for the release of political prisoners and the General Elections were declared.

The people wanted an anti-Congress alliance. But leaders of the Left CPI and the Right CPI went on bargaining for seats. Finally the dialogue broke down and the Right CPI, along with the Bangla Congress, developed a separate alliance. Two anti-Congress fronts, the ULF( United Left Front) and the PULF( People's United Left Front) came into existence. The former consisted of the Left CPI, turned into the CPI(M) at the behest of the Election Commission, RSP, RCPI, SUC, Marxist Forward Bloc, Workers' Party and SSP. The latter included the CPI, Forward Bloc, Bangla Congress, PSP, Bolshevik Party and Lok Sevak Sangha. In NOW, the entire process was criticised in its editorial as simply opportunistic, without any responsibility towards the people. It clearly stated that both sides had broken down the dialogue only for a few seats with the high-flown drama of ideological differences.

When the results of the polls were out, the power-hungry nature of the leaders of both alliances came to the fore. They immediately formed the United Front in the name of honouring the 'verdict of the people'. On March 15, the UF ministers were sworn in with Ajay Mukherjee as the Chief Minister and Jyoti Basu as the Deputy Chief. Humayun Kabir was elected to the parliament from Basirhat and his brother Jahangir Kabir elected an MLA, became a minister in the United Front government.

Samar Sen immediately came out with an editorial exposing the power-hungry nature of the leaders and the unprincipled character of their understanding, arguing that they had conflicting interests. In that editorial, he predicted that because of its own contradictions, the UF ministry would not last long. This editorial, written in the immediate aftermath of the swearing-in of the UF ministry, gave rise to great noise among the intelligentsia. Execept a few Marxist-Leninists, the majority, even the so-called militant left intellectuals, did not agree with it. The official left, now close to power, started announcing that in this case, Cassandra would be proved wrong. Humayun Kabir was not only embarrassed, but was also waiting to find some alternative. But even before that could be effected, the peasant upsurge in Naxalbari changed the political scenario of West Bengal. The opportunism of the left in the Left Front became apparent when the police killed unarmed peasant women at Prasadjote. Not a minister, nor any of the "left" parties came out against the police brutality. No doubt there were contradictions within the Left Front, but those could be pushed under the carpet in order to continue in power.

Samar Sen was bitter in his criticism of the government. It was clear he was on the side of the peasant revolutionaries. Perhaps it was too much for Humayun Kabir to digest. There were gossips that he had earlier asked Samar Sen to avoid such controversial issues. But being a part of that journalistic tradition of Bengal, where one editor could announce that he would better be a 'hawker editor than a servant editor', it was not possible for Samar Sen to oblige as he had earlier resigned from his job in the Hindusthan Standard opposing the House's stand on communalism. The event of Naxalbari occurred on 25 May, 1967 and Samar Sen was dismissed in October 1967.

But with all his efforts, and connection with the Tatas, Kabir could not continue NOW. On the other hand, immediately after Samar Sen's exit from NOW, the UF government fell. One minister of the UF government, Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, formed the PDFR and with the support of the Congress and the blessings of the then governor Dharma Veera, became the Chief Minister.

Samar Sen did not get the opportunity to reply to those who equated him with Cassandra, but Humayun Kabir, before his death in 1969, had to witness the indomitability of Samar Sen's spirit when Frontier was launched with the same set of contributors. Nobody knows how he felt about Frontier. But Samar Sen's exit from NOW certainly proved to him that Samar Sen could exist without NOW, but NOW could not exist without Samar Sen.

Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 - 29, 2016