A Tribute

Vaskar Nandy

Anirban Biswas

Vaskar Nandy, one important figure of the post-Naxalbari Marxist-Leninist movement in India, died on 4 May, 2018 at the age of 79 after a long struggle with cancer. His death marked the end of a long journey spanning more than five decades. Even when he lost his power of speech owing to an operation, he continued to write on the national and international situations with an incisive mind.

A native of Dacca, now in Bangladesh, Vaskar Nandy was the elder son of the famous physician of that city, Dr Manmath Nandy. He received his academic education in Calcutta Boys School and University College of London. While a student in London, he got involved in the Pacifist Movement and then in the New Left Movement. For a period, he dabbled in journalism and other odd jobs in order to earn a living. In the early sixties of the last century, he went to the University of Columbia with a fellowship in sociology, but before completing his PhD, returned to India in order to join the communist movement. He at first joined the CPI (M), but gradually came to the understanding that the party was drifting exclusively towards a parliamentary path. This understanding evolved into conviction after the historic Naxalbari uprising which the CPI(M) leaders denounced. After spending some time in the tea gardens in the Dooars region of North Bengal, he moved to Assam, where he founded the Naxalite movement. He eluded the police for seven long years, but was arrested from a train compartment in 1976. The police at first denied the fact of his arrest, ostensibly with a view to murdering him in cold blood. His life was saved by a habeas corpus issued by the Gwahati High Court.

While a fugitive, he, along with some of his close comrades, undertook the task of reuniting the movement by bringing together all the fragmented parts. The outcome was the formation of the Unity Committee, CPI (M-L) which later merged with the CC, CPI (M-L) led by S N Singh to be named PCC, CPI (M-L).

Vaskar Nandy was one of the first persons in the Indian communist movement to reflect over the importance of the identity question and the necessity of linking the identity question with the class question. He articulated his understanding in many writings, and in 1986, organised a nationwide campaign under the name Communalism and Threat to Diversity. Conventions and mass meetings were held under this banner in Kolkata, Siliguri, Jullundher, Gwahati and other places. In 1989, when Rajib Gandhi, apprehensive of defeat in the polls, unlocked the key of the Babri Masjid, the reaction among the Muslims in the neighbouring region was about to lead to widespread riots and bloodbath. Vaskar Nandy, along with Javed Habib and Alak Upadhyay, convinced Muslim religious leaders of the necessity to avoid direct confrontation and instead to resort to Satyagraha. Regarding Assam, which was his main field of work for a long time, his position was one of consistently opposing Assamese chauvinism and Bodo chauvinism, and upholding the rights of tribals and religious minorities. The articles he wrote on the problems of Assam testify to his profound insights into the problem. They were not academic, pedantic articles; they carried the imprint of a practical and struggling mind. On the problems of the tea industry and the tea garden workers of North Bengal, he had immense grasp, and he served as the president of the Paschimbanga Chabagan Karmachari Samity. The way he analysed the problem of tea garden workers and upheld with a great deal of cogency the right of workers to minimum wages must stir the sensible mind. The same insight is found in his understanding and treatment of the Gorkha problem. Convinced that capitalism had been restored in China, he assiduously studied and reflected over the problem of building socialism. He was keenly aware of the questions raised by Rosa Luxemburg and others, and wrote a number of articles arguing that one party rule, absence of universal suffrage and strengthening of the arms of the state only harms the cause of transition to communism.

Unfortunately enough, he, at various points of his political career, had been the target of malicious propaganda. After the Naxalbari uprising, Mr Promod Dasgupta, the then secretary of state committee of the CPI (M), called him a CIA agent. At that time, he was a little known political figure. Recalling those days, once he remarked before this writer, "It was Promod Dasgupta who made me famous". More unfortunately, some within the Naxalite camp resorted to a method of character assassination against him in order to sort out political differences. Some individualistic intellectuals parading as revolutionary theoreticians also tried to berate him because they lacked his challenging attitude to life and also the guts to face him.

To Frontier, he was always sympathetic. Despite his many other preoccupations, he found time to write for this weekly. Some of his articles published in Frontier are : Bengali Chauvinism and Ethnic Tangle in North Bengal (January, 2013), Tea Garden Struggles (Autumn Number, 2013), Democratic Deficit (Autumn Number, 2015), Plight of Plantation Workers (July 31, 2016), The Bodo Massacres (Autumn Number, 2016).

Vol. 50, No.46, May 20 - 26, 2018