Ashok Mitra

‘End of a Long Journey’

Anirban Biswas

Ashok Mitra, the economist, politician and writer, passed away at a private hospital in Kolkata, 2018 at the age of 90. To the common public, he is chiefly known as the controversial former finance minister of West Bengal, but a proper appraisement of his career must take into account much more. He did a doctoral thesis from the Netherlands Institute, taught at Delhi School of Economics, University of Lucknow, IIM Calcutta and ISI Calcutta, besides having short stints at some other universities in India and abroad. As a regular writer of the weekly NOW, edited by Samar Sen—he was a lifelong admirer of Samar Sen—he became known as a leftist intellectual. That was in the mid-sixties of the last century. Somewhat curiously, he was invited to take over as chief economic adviser to the government of India, a post he resigned in April 1972. His experience of that period filled him with implacable wrath towards Indira Gandhi, and he subsequently gave expression to his feelings on various occasions. One striking example was an essay published after Mrs Gandhi's death in Illustrated Weekly of India. Two academic books written by him are China : Issues in Development and Terms of Trade and Class Relations and an academic volume edited by him was Economic Theory and Planning : Essays in Honour of Professor A K Dasgupta. He wrote numerous short pieces for NOW, Frontier and Economic and Political Weekly, and in the twilight period of his life, the Telegraph. His Bengali pieces are also large in number, and they were always delightful reading because of beauty of style. Mitra's political views require a little bit of careful examination. He was a professed leftist, apparently inclined towards the CPI(M). This is amply exemplified by his writings. His acceptance of the post of economic adviser to the Government of India is possibly explicable by the fact that in those days, clearly happy at the ouster and political eclipse of the old Congress stalwarts, came to look upon Indira Gandhi as a progressive person. It did not, however, take long for their dream to be shattered. It did not, however, take long for their illusion to be shattered. Ashok Mitra fell in this category of disappointed persons, and the various forms of lawless state repression and rampant hooliganism by the lumpen youths belonging to the Congress repelled him further, and he resigned his post in 1972. Then came the emergency after which he was harassed and had to leave the country. In 1977, after the humiliating electoral defeat of the Congress at the centre and several states, he was appointed finance minister of the Left Front Government. His acceptance of this post was most probably propelled by a genuine optimism about the would be achievements of the Left Front. But when he resigned, it was apparent that he had developed serious differences with the establishment of the Left. He was a critic of the Naxalites, but these criticisms were never of the official CPI(M) type. Samar Sen and Frontier earned the ire of the official left, but Ashok Mitra edited a volume under the title : The Truth Unites: Essays in Tribute to Samar Sen. In the Introduction to the volume he paid glowing tribute to the legendary poet-Journalist. The second impression of Ashok Mitra's Calcutta Diary was published from Kolkata in 2015, the first impression having been brought out in London in 1977. It is a collection of 48 short pieces, two from Frontier and others from EPW. As one goes through the volume, one must be moved by pieces like Fascism Shall Not Pass, The Emancipation of Kamal Bose, The Song of Mother Courage, Suffer us Not to Mock Ourselves, An Ordinary man etc. Fascism Shall Not Pass is about two brothers, Pradip and Prabir Roy Chowdhury, who were killed in cold blood by the police during the dark days of Indira-Siddhartha rule in West Bengal. Somewhat irrelevantly, it may be said that this writer was one year's senior to Prabir at the Presidency College, and he can still recall Prabir's young, idealistic face.

On Ashok Mitra's politico-economic views, a few more lines may be added. Notwithstanding his inclinations towards the CPI(M) and Jyoti Basu, he became a bitter critic of the West Bengal CPI(M)'s policy of appeasing the big bourgeoisie in the name of industrialisation and development. He exposed the nefarious role of the Salim group during the rule of the fascist military CIA-backed dictator Suharto in Indonesia and trenchantly criticised the Left Front Government's policy of giving lavish free-bies to the Tatas on the occasion of the proposed automobile project in Singur. On the Gorkha question, however, he took a Bengali chauvinist stand akin to that of the CPI(M), forgetting that as a nationality, the Gorkhas too had a right to self-determination. Regarding Mamata Banerjee, however, his position was one of unalloyed hatred.

It should be added that during the Indira regime, Ashok Mitra, although not put behind bars, suffered to some extent. A ban was imposed on his articles and he had to leave the country.

Ever since the birth of Frontier on 14 April, 1968, he wrote as a regular columnist in the paper under the pseudonym Charan Gupta for two years. Then he stopped writing for this weekly, but even after the death of Samar Sen, he said in an interview that Frontier, despite many differences with him, had remained committed to an ideal. He added that such examples were hard to find in this vastly populated country. At the age of eighty five, be brought out a Bengali monthly, Arek Rakam which reflected his social concerns. The journal continues to be run as yet. Arek Rakam brought out a special issue on the birth centenary of Samar Sen in 2017 and despite sharp political differences Mitra published in this number a short piece on Samar Sen by the present editor of Frontier.

Vol. 50, No.45, May 13 - 19, 2018