The Forgotten Communists

CPI Party Building in North Bengal

Sankar Ray

Sushil Chatterjee, Sushil Sen, Kali Sarkar, Patal Ghosh, Kishori Barman, Gurudas Talukdar, Rupnarayan Roy, Sujat Ali Majumdar and so on. They are apparently non-descript, accidentally accommodated as footnotes in history and politics of Bengal in the colonial years. But they were the ones who braved very extreme odds to build up the communist organisation in north Bengal. They remain sadly neglected by historians and communist leaders of post-independence India. Minati Sen, former CPI (M) MP from Jalpaiguri and Subhashis Gupta, a top-ranking leader of yesteryears of Coordination Committee of West Bengal Government Associations of Unions deserve accolades for having embarked on the history of communist party in the districts of north Bengal (Uttarbanglar Jelagulir Communist Party'r Itihas by Minati Sen of Jalpaiguri and Subhashis Gupta of Kolkata. Price : Rs 400), the first part of it (until the partition of Bengal) was published on the May May Day 2016. The treatise with copies of reports or excerpts from Swadhinata, Bengali morninger of undivided Communist Party of India and Janayuddha, organ of the party, during the 1940s after thespian raised the slogan of 'People's War' during the anti-fascist stir. The two authors did impressive homework, studying various journals and books that brought out more details.

Significantly, all the three first victorious CPI candidates in the elections to Bengal provincial assembly in 1946 were from pre-partition north Bengal that included Rajshahi and Rangpur other districts that are now in Bangladesh.

It is published by the authors themselves and the book is not on sale at the counter of CPI(M)-controlled National Book Agency—once again a proof that India's largest parliamentary Leftist party adheres to its Stalinist-Beriaite mindset. Chatterjee, belonging to Krishnagar of Nadia district, south Bengal took the leading role in the formation of communist party in Darjeeling district. The provincial leadership in 1942 (when Bhowimi Sen was the defacto provincial committee secretary, before formally elected to the post) assigned him the responsibility. Chatterjee was an armed revolutionary ('terror-communist') who was indoctrinated to communism through 'communist consolidation' during imprisonment, precisely by Dharani Goswami, one of the earliest members of CPI and Niranjan Sengupta. Chatterjee—'an outsider but the first organiser'—proved his mettle by setting up the first District Organisational Committee (DOC) comprising five members Ganeslal Subba (secretary), first District Organisational Committee (DOC), Ratanlal Brahmin, Bhadrabahadur Hamal, Wangdi Lama and Madan Thapa in the same year. (p 287) Judicious was the decision to rope in Brahmin who had the semblance of a Robin Hood (not stated by the authors) and was very popular among the people thriving literally on 'chill penury' in the Darjeeling Hills. He was initially hostile to Chatterjee as if a sleuth. But the mindset of Ratanlal towards politico-theoretical transition is crisply penned by veteran CPI(M) 's West Bengal state committee member Jibesh Sarkar: Ratanlal Brahmin, used to say, "It was Swami Sachchidananda who first inspired him to work among the distressed tea estate workers. He got the inspiration to devote himself for the spread of mother tongue and nationality issue from Dharanidhar Sharma. His gravitation towards social ideas and communism was due to Rahul Sankrityayana. But above all, his political mentor was Sushil Chatterjee " (free tr., pp 346-4 7).

The authors quote Swadhinata (24 February 1946) exposing the Congress, which sought, albeit in vain to cash in on an artificial Gorkha (Nepali)-Bengali divide, terming them with contempt as 'Dhotiwallas' to trounce the CPI candidate Ratanlal in the electoral contest from the Darjeeling (reserved labour) assembly constituency. Chatterjee, district CPI secretary Subba, Ratanlal and Kalu, issued a statement accusing the Congress of intending to trigger a riot between the Gorkhas. The evil design was foiled as the CPI candidate won the poll, the Congress candidate Gaga Dubka having forfeited the security deposit. The colonial planters coalesced with the Congress in a holy manner by depriving nearly 12,500 out of 15,000 tea estate workers from voting rights and denying the CPI candidate the right to campaign inside tea gardens , but all these vile designs flopped. Ratanlal aka 'bajey' (brother) one of the three CPI MLAs in the Bengal Assembly. Other two were Jyoti Basu (from Syedpur reserved railway labour seat) and Rupnarayan Roy from Dinajpur (non-reserved)- all from north Bengal that included Rangpur too on those days. Born in a poor peasant family, Roy was one of the legendary leaders (unfortunately ignored even by the subaltern historians) of Tebhaga movement in Dinajpur where the movement was most widespread. He was the only one of eight elected communist candidates in India to have won from a non-reserved constituency.

The author copiously quotes from the speeches of Roy. Addressing the poor peasants and sharecroppers (adhiyar) in the main at Patiram, near Balurghat (then a sub-divisional headquarters) on 14 February, 1946, Roy said: "Standing beside you, I shall fight against the imperialist tyrants, zamindars and jotedars until death. The last ditch battle for independence and land has begun. The awakening of the peasants some opportunists say that the krishak samiti wants the battle for land, not the battle for freedom. I say it is a single battle of the peasants for driving out the imperialists and tilling the land by destroying the zamindars and jotedars. Such clear-headed was the peasant leader who won by bagging over 15,000 votes, trouncing two Congress candidates. Sushil Sen, secretary of Dinajpur district committee of CPI and that of district committee of Bangiya Pradeshik Krishak Samiti (Bengal provincial peasant committee) and member, provincial committee of CPI, kick-started the Tebbaga battle on by harvesting the crop, raised by an adhiar (sharecropper or Bargadar), Phuljhari Singh, at the village Rampur (Ampur in colloquial) under Atwari PS of Thakurgaon subdivision 4 January 1947. This was as per decision of the Dinajpur DC leadership of the party. The decision to embark on the Tebhaga struggle (the principal demand being two-thirds of crops to be raised by the bargadars to be shared by the latter) was principally taken at the Moubhog (now in Khulna district of Bangladesh) conference of BPKS in the summer of 1946 but Dinajpur comrades decided to begin the Tebhaga stir without prior nod from the BPKS leadership. Nonetheless, this was without any rationale. Moreover, BPKS secretary Abani Lahiri in his Tirish-Chollisher, Bangla (Bengal in the 1930s and 1940s- a marathon interview, basically of the peasant battle) revealed that the CPI had the largest base in the district, in terms of party membership as well. Indeed, the organisational base was the most formidable in Thakurgaon where the main leader was Gurudas Talukdar, president, Dinajpur district committee of BPKS, who embraced imprisonment as a freedom fighter in the early 1920s. Second, the BPKS council at its meeting in September 1946 gave the green signal to start the struggle with three principles, stated by Sen crisply elsewhere. "The decision to implement the slogans—Nij Kholane dhan tolo (Store paddy in your home-granary), adhi noy, Tebhaga chai ( not half, but two thirds of grown paddy) karja dhaner sud nai (no interest for paddy taken on loan from owners) was taken both by the DC of CPI and that of BPKS in October, 1946, with emphasis on Nij Kholane dhan tolo... The area under the leadership of Gurudas Talukdar was one of the most famine-ridden regions in the district".

The event electrified the peasant resistance against zamindars, jotedars and police. The message spread fast in two other districts almost simultaneously—Rangpur and Jalpaiguri. Tebhaga struggle began in full swing in three districts. Police "arrested Sushil Sen, a peasant leader. Next day, the volunteers went to cut the paddy in the same village and there was a clash. The police arrested a few peasants and left the village. Soon after this incident, the leading functionaries of the Communist Party met in Thakurgaon town and decided to go into hiding in order to guide the movement. It seems that the Adhiars' response was overwhelming. Within a month the movement spread to 22 out of 30 police stations in the district and was particularly intense in the Thakurgaon sub-division which was the centre of the Adhiar movement of 1938-39 (Sunil Sen, Peasant Movements in India: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Manisha, Calcutta, 1991 p 107. Adhiar means bargadar. As they were supposed to have half of paddy grown in leased-in plots, they were Adhiar in north Bengal). In fact, Tebhaga movement took off in Dinajpur despite reluctance of the BPKS leadership which only gave a call at Moubhog conference (then in Khulna district, now in Bangladesh) in the summer of 1946. There was a dilemma in BPKS brass and in September crossed the Rubicon, announcing that the battle would start in harvesting season. Leadership of CPI and BPKS in Dinajpur was hellbent to begin the stir and the decision to harvest at Rampur was taken without waiting for direction from state leaders. The BPKS leaders were annoyed with Sen and sought for an explanation from him. But the spread and spontaneous response from peasants (not bargadars/adhiars alone) stopped the party bureaucracy to go ahead with the punitive action. The reaction was virulent. The police, zamindars and jotedars joined hands with political backing of both the Indian National Congress and Muslim League in the region. By 13 December, 1946 -within a week of the onset of the battle thereafter, few lakh of bargadars were arrested as the movement spread in 19 districts -first in Dinajpur, then Jalpaiguri, Rangpur and other districts of north Bengal and therefrom to the entire Bengal excepting Burdwan, Birbhum and Bankura districts (ibid, pp 110- 11).

Sushil Sen wrote, "The decision to implement the slogans—Nij Kholane dhan tolo (Store paddy in your home-granary), adhi noy, Tebhaga chai (not half, but two thirds of grown paddy) karja dhaner sud nai (no interest for paddy taken on loan from owners) was taken both by the DC of CPI and that of BPKS in October, 1946, with emphasis on Nij Kholane dhan tolo... The area under the leadership of Gurudas Talukdar was one of the most famine ridden regions in the district. The western part of the area under Thakurgaon was the most powerful base of both the party and BPKS. It was decided that the movement would begin from there by harvesting and the DC secretary would harvest the crop first" (from a Bengali article, written during the silver jubilee of Tebhaga struggle in 1971).

Popular folk song Gambhira (named after Gambhir, one of several names of Lord Shiva) was banned by the district magistrate of Malda in the mid-1940s. Satirical lyrics reflecting contemporary societal and political events, Gambhira songs were exposing the unholy nexus among the government, Muslim League, Congress leaders and hoarders of rice and essential commodities. Editor of Janayuddha (Bengali version of People's War of CPI) Bankim Mukherjee, a legendary communist, TU and peasant leader and an outstanding orator, wrote, "Songs that were banned were full of hatred against bribed bureaucrats and black marketeers. Those songs became very popular and were sung by people on the roadsides". Poet Subhas Mukhopadhyay, was sent there to write on Gambhira in Janayuddha. It carried the report on 5 July 1945 that included the genesis of Gambhira. Gopal Das of Madhabnagar was hailed by the 'harbinger' as its father while the modern Gambhira flourished under Sheikh Safiur Rahman (Sufi Master) and Baidyanath Bandyopadhyay of Nababchapaiganj of Rajshahi district (now in Bangladesh). Mukhopadhyay wrote... Actually, Gambhira is more a reflex of ritualistic reality in a semi-theatrical form than song. Gambhira performances served as mini-catalysts for the victory of Rupnarayan Roy. Harekrishna Das, an important 'contract committee' member in setting up the party in Malda district took the Gambhira squad in support of Roy, there being no CPI candidate in Malda Kali Sarkar, comming off a lower middle class household, was among the first few top leaders of Tebhaga struggle in Dinajpur. Narrating the pathos and valour of Chiarsai Sheikh, who led the martyrdom of 21 peasants on 20 January 1947 at Khanpur, wrote a song, Khanpurjuddher katha koribo barnan, (Narrating the text of Khanpur battle) during imprisonment at Rajshahi Jail.

Debaprasad Ghosh a k a Patal is criminally spiked by historians and communist leaders. He was the pioneer in the formation of labour union in the railways and tea estates in Dooars, the first secretary of Cha Bagan Shramik Union with Ratanlal as the president. He used to travel miles by foot along rails to organise gang mazdoors. His contribution to the victory of Jyoti Basu in the election to Bengal provincial union is noted by the authors.

Gurudas Roy, the first secretary of BPKS district organising committee in 1938 in Jalpaiguri, remains almost forgotten. Joined CPI during imprisonment through communist consolidation, he was a member of the first DC of CPI with Biren Datta as the secretary.

Sujat Ali Majumdar, deputed by the provincial CPI leadership, worked underground to build the party in Malda district with Manik Jha (when Narendranath Chakraborty was the district committee secretary) at Kaligram, Mathurapur, Amriti and other rural areas. A crucial role was played by Harekrishna Das, who went from the neighbouring Rajshahi district in the late 1930s, to build the party there. He played a key role in the victory of Jha in the district board election. A member of the first contract committee; to set up the party, he was the secretary of the second contract committee.

Entries on Debi Niyogi (Cooch-behar), Kishori Barman (Dinajpur) and many others reflect the authors' diligence. Fully quoted statement of CPI provincial leadership after the independence in Swadhinata is important. Sectarian imprints notwithstanding, it shows that there was a congenital disconnect between the mindset of CPI and externally imposed slogan of 'ye azadi jhutha hain' that damaged the image of the party irreparably.

But there are a few unpardonable slips. For instance, they wrote that "After exiled in the Andamans (later famous journalist, editor and intellectual) Satyendranath Majumdar joined the communist party in Siliguri. He took up the pen for spreading the communist stand in the then prevailing situation". They referred to his article 'Congress and CPI' in Janayuddha. But it was Satyendra Narayan Majumdar, the chief theoretician of Anushilan Party among Andaman exiles. He was the deputy leader of CPI Rajya Sabha group (1952-57), an internationally acclaimed scholar on Darjeeling nationality question as also linguistics. He never worked in a newspaper as he was whole-timer lifelong. The title of the book would be better had it been called a chronicle than history. It's a commendable effort.

Vol. 49, No.43, April 30 - May 6, 2017