A Revolutionary Soldier

Samar Sen –Champion of ‘Lost Causes’

Sushil Khanna

It was in late 1977 that I first saw Samar Sen. I was visiting the Frontier office with friends to collect records and evidence of police atrocities on political activists. This was immediately after the defeat of Indira Gandhi post the Emergency and the coming to power of the Left Front government in West Bengal. I was in awe of Samar-da, but he hardly spoke to me or even noticed me immersed over the older issues of the Frontier.

I had encountered the incisive writings of Samarda in the early 1970s when we were students at the management school in Calcutta. Ranajay Karlekar (popularly known as Toto) who gave a few lectures at our Institute promised to take us to meet Samar Sen and was convinced that Samarda would be happy, if we wrote for Frontier, to publish good analysis of the political economy. However, I and some other left-leaning students were too timid and hesitant of our own capabilities.

During the early 1970s and especially during the Emergency years, we continued to devour Frontier. It was publishing a series of damning stories of police excesses, extra-judicial killings and as the Naxalite movement came under state pressure, it even provided space for intra movement polemics and debates.

My relationship with Samar Sen developed only in 1980s when we moved to a small flat on Swinhoe Street. Economist Nirmal Chandra had taken me to his 'baithakkhana', which still attracted few left-leaning intellectuals, writers and poets; publishers of 'little magazines' and pamphleteers. Here many of his friends would gather to discuss politics. I was an 'outsider' to Bengal's cultural wars and my command over Bengali was rather weak. I was even unaware of Samarda's poetry, which by then had a formidable reputation of having broken from the Tagore's style of writing. Though Samar Sen had stopped writing poetry decades ago, he still had friends and vast social network. Others told me about the deep impact his poetry had had on Bengali verse. In my presence, Samarda spoke only in English so that I would not be left out of the discussion.

Over the years, he took me and my family under his fold. Our son, then only 3 or 4 years old, would often prank about his 'baithak', called him 'Summer' dadu that amused him immensely, and was presented with a set of books for children, which Samarda confessed were acquired in Moscow for his daughters. Yet our friendship centered around his views of unfolding politics, his cynical view of the state of the left in Bengal and in India; and the fading away of what he once called the 'Bolshevik man'.

Left Front was in power in the state of West Bengal and many political prisoners had been released from the jails. Left Front's 'Operation Barga' was in full swing and the old hostilities between many former Naxalite activists and the local government had ebbed (before they would start again).

Some close friends of Samarda had moved to work with the Left Front government, while others were fascinated by possibilities Left Front's land reform programme could open for the rejuvenation of the Bengal countryside. Revolutionary praxis was being re-assessed. Samarda was unmoved, remained unimpressed and cynical about the LF to the end. He cautioned the economist Ashok Mitra who had joined the Left Front government as a minister, that he was making a grave mistake and would regret it.

I slowly discovered Samarda and his vast influence on the cultural scene and Bengali literature through these evening addas; I could see too the number of visitors was dwindling over the years. There was senior journalist, M J Akbar( Samarda would have expressed disgust at his switch to saffron politics) who would occasionally drop in as would academics like Nirmal Chandra and Amiya Bagchi. But more often it would be the editors of Calcutta's little magazines who were in awe of his poetry and literary prowess. Once when I complained that it was unfortunate I could not read his poems, he assured me that I had missed little. Politics was his muse now.

Samarda grew increasingly cynical of the future of left politics in India. His days in Moscow in the early 1960s and his skirmishes with the Soviet censors, who noticed his writings in Economic and Political Weekly, had purged him of all romantic notions of the Bolshevik mission of creating a new society and a new man. Now his journal provided space to writers analyzing 'social imperialism' and other critics of parliamentary socialist parties and practice. The decline and disarray of the so-called Marxist-Leninist political formations and absence of any common platform or journal for airing their opinion and differences meant that the only platform for these debates was Frontier. Though cynical and critical of some of the writings being sent for publications, Samar Sen allowed Frontier to play the role.

These times also meant that many friends of Frontier were now moving away. Money was still scarce and few advertisements kept Frontier afloat; many contributors too had stopped writing. This was when Samarda asked some of us to help with editorials and articles. Timir Basu was now a regular contributor and joined him in sharing editorial work, proof reading, and liasoning with the press. Several younger people now gathered around him to help. Frontier still had a wide readership, held respect among a circle and was available in several bookshops across India. Samarda's provocative and incisive editorials, continued to attract readers to the journal and enthrall old ones.

Though Samarda gave us all the freedom to write, his opinion and editorial stance emerged clear to us in the discussions with him during the evening 'addas'; to be gently educated in his views and the kind of stance he wanted the journal to take. He encouraged us to be critical in questioning of what was happening. He was sure the euphoria with Left politics and governance in Bengal would soon pass. Frontier could still mobilize many old contributors like Sumanta Banerjee, Nirmal Chandra, Amiya Bagchi, Partha Chatterjee, and even younger writers like Shubendu Dasgupta, Prabir Basu, etc. Its readership, though declining, was still strong. Others like, M J Akbar did not write but helped organize advertisements and funds.

Despite these supporters, the larger political environment of the country by early 1980s, was changing in a fundamental way. It was clear that the old alliances that had underpinned the hegemony of the Congress party for so long were being undermined. The emergence of leaders like Karpuri Thakur, Ramkrishna Hegde and the rising consolidation of backward castes were perplexing to many observers of radical politics. Left Front too was entrenching itself on its agrarian reforms and consolidation of new emerging groups in the countryside. The Congress seemed to be in disarray, not only in Bengal but in the whole of India as non-Congress Formations assumed power at the centre. The old Marxist-Leninist groups were slowly consolidating themselves, more in Andhra Pradesh (than in West Bengal) and new form of revolutionary praxis was sporadically emerging in Bihar and parts of Maharashtra. Civil liberties groups had also emerged as non party groups who continuously needed to reach their investigation reports to the readers. Frontier was one such platform.

The re-election of Indira Gandh and her subsequent assassination in October 1984 were making Indian political scene more turbulent and politics more confusing. First, the electoral defeat followed by the quick resurrection of the Indira Gandhi had changed Indian bourgeois democracy in some fundamental way. Samarda would often express his confusion and bewilderment to young ones like me and other friends who visited him. He was not enamoured of these trends and often asked us for our opinion and analysis. We too were unable to throw much light.

Following Indira Gandhi's assassination and the violent riots that followed in Delhi (and to a small extent in Calcutta) upset him tremendously. He asked me to write an editorial on her role in Indian politics, warning me that I should not focus only on her authoritarian style of politics and overlook her role in consolidating bourgeois politics that was in disarray after the collapse of old order. He published the piece without too much editing, but later confessed that several of his friends thought Frontier had been too generous in evaluating Gandhi's role.

In the subsequent years, Samarda continued to plod on like a faithful soldier, even with his declining health. The untimely death of his daughter was a severe blow, but he rarely shared his personal grief. He would always take his early morning tram from the Gariahat tram depot to Mott Lane in central Calcutta, work till early afternoon, and take a tram back to Swinhoe Street. The evening addas were wound up early, as Samarda wanted to have his medicines and sleep early.

To many of us who grew up in those turbulent decades of 1970s and 80s, Samarda was a beacon of integrity and struggle. His only compromises had to do with soliciting finances to keep the Frontier afloat. It brought him no remuneration except a daily trudge braving traffic to Mott Lane and the press. Yet his abiding faith in a new India bereft of exploitation and petty divisions of religion and caste, even when the world around him seemed to be crumbling was inviolable. Bengal, indeed India, has rarely seen men like him.

Vol. 49, No.17, Oct 30 - Nov 5, 2016