Pen As A Sword

Rebel with a Cause

Debabrata Panda

October 10, 2016. To the honest and upright citizens of this country, the date has a special relevance as that of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of an outstanding intellectual who was true to himself, a champion of the underdog—poet-journalist-literary critic Samar Sen—known for his integrity and non-conformist position. He was a man who shunned publicity. He was a writer who did not use his pen to serve the Establishment or to please the moneybags. He steadfastly refused to succumb to the lure of awards and glorification as it would have meant compromising his principles and pen. He took upon himself the task of awakening the masses by exposing the policies of the imperialists and its allies without caring a fig for a cosy life even in his twilight years. His protracted fight against state terrorism and the politically motivated oppression that came down on the magazine he edited made him emaciated. Even then his enigmatic smile on his sensitive face, his bright eyes and his satire remained as lively as ever. He lived a glorious life. His mild manners, pungency of his comments and the inimitable style and tenor of writing and, above all, his life's saga made him a Rebel with a cause. He fought for the cause of the people's liberation by using his pen as a sword.

Hailing from an educated middle class family, Samar Sen, himself a brilliant student, had the potential of becoming a pundit of repute. His grandfather Dinesh Chandra Sen was the author of the 'History of Bengali Language and Literature', and a researcher of Bengali folklore. His father Arun Kumar Sen was an academician. But scholarly attainment was not Samar Sen's mission in life. He was eager to stand by the side of the voiceless millions and use his pen to safeguard the rights and dignity of the oppressed and the dispossessed. He came in touch with Marxism in his late teens. In later years that built his strong sense of commitment. The plain and simple living of such towering revolutionary personalities as Radharaman Mitra and Bankim Mukherji, who spent some time in his house, left an indelible mark on him. Following his encounter with Muzaffar Ahmed, founder of the Communist Party, his social commitment grew stronger. He decided to wield his pen not merely to expose the dirt in the social fabric but to uproot the social evils. His strong sense of commitment was rooted in his cultural upbringing in the company of such stalwarts as Budhadev Bose, Jamini Roy, Sudhindranath Datta, Bishnu Dey, Debi Prasad Chattopadhyay, and Subhas Mukhopadhyay. This intellectual atmosphere helped the development of his creative faculties.

As a poet Samar Sen did not like to move along the path carved out by his predecessors. He wrote prose poems in a manner which resulted in distancing himself from Tagore's influence. He was recognized as a modern poet who wrote "only prose poems and no verse at all". After some years the realization dawned on him that his poems failed to strike a balance with his communist consciousness; his poetry could no more bring in newer ideas; it was all a repetition of the same words, the caricature of the very same set of imagery. At one point of time he began to lay blame on his middle class position as being responsible for skepticism and pessimism in his poems and his failure to bring in ceaselessly newer elements and freshness of ideas. He was probably contemplating a reconstruction of his ways of living as he was bent upon preserving his identity as a poet. But the Communist Party was in a nascent state and Samar Sen was aware of his own limitation as a revolutionary. So he gave up writing poetry when he was at the peak of his career. After 1946 he did not write any poem. Well, how did Samar Sen reflect on his own poems when he was a man of mature years? Possibly we may get some hint from his column, "Frankly Speaking" in Frontier (April 11, 1970). He wrote: "….this writer has been out of touch with poetry for the last 24 years. Alas! It no longer rings a bell in him. When he is forced to look up some of his own stuff, weariness and boredom overtake him."

Dabbling in jobs
From the early 1940's Samar Sen moved from one job to another without in any way sacrificing his values and social commitment at the altar of the powers that be. After a brief stint in colleges, he joined the All India Radio in 1944, and left it when the home minister demanded an explanation about a particular news item. Samar Sen flatly told the minister that he was answerable only to the information and broadcasting ministry and to none else. He then left the All India Radio and joined The Statesman in 1949. In 1956 he went to Moscow with the job of a translator in the Soviet government's foreign literature translation department, probably with a desire to have first-hand knowledge of what had been going on in the land of socialist revolution. There he felt the impact of de-Stalinisation----the birth of a potbellied society where he did not come across a "new" man. His illusion about the land of Lenin and Stalin was shattered as he observed the lure of consumerist culture, attraction for imported consumer durables and the apolitical nature of the common man in Russia. He returned to his city in 1961. After a brief stint in an advertisement concern, he joined the Hindustan Standard as Joint editor in 1962. In the wake of India-China border clashes chauvinism reared its ugly head. Samar Sen did not find a congenial working environment in the background of rabid anti-communist propaganda campaign let loose by a good number of journalists employed in the Ananda Bazar Patrika (The Hindustan Standard was the English daily of this Patrika house). He left the job soon over the question of playing up the communal issue. He made a silent exit without making his resignation an issue. We don't know how many journalists would resign from a covetable job and thus invite financial insecurity by refusing to toe the line dictated by the big bosses. From the Hindustan Standard Samar Sen moved to Now.

Tryst with Destiny
At the call of Humayun Kabir, then a liberal democrat and a former minister in the Nehru cabinet, Samar Sen joined Now as editor (October, 1964). Now was owned by the Nation Trust but largely controlled by Mr Kabir. In 1964-65 Mr Kabir's position seemed to be that of a progressive intellectual. The internal bickering within the Congress Party, especially the personality clash with Mr Atulya Ghosh, brightened up Kabir's image of a truly liberal gentleman. He was happy with Samar Sen as editor. The political environment, however, was highly unstable. Everything was in a topsy-turvy. The split in the Communist Party had taken place. A large number of activists were in jail or were forced to go underground. In the state of undeclared Emergency there was an all round political uncertainty. Now began its journey in this critical hour with an unwritten task of reflecting this reality in its pages. Exposure of state terrorism was considered by Now as historically a major task. The editor had to work hard for long hours to raise the quality of the magazine to unimaginable heights.

In the first editorial of the magazine (October 9), it was stated categorically that Now would be "a forum for free discussion, not only on political, social and economic affairs, but also on literature, the arts and entertainment". Samar Sen succeeded in raising the prestige of this Weekly by mobilisng intellectual contributions from a number of luminaries here and abroad. Within a span of less than one year Now earned its reputation of a healthy platform for debates on socio-political issues, on art and literature, culture and cinema. There was, in fact, no problem in running Now as a forum for free and fair discussion as long as there was no interference with the editor's freedom. Samar Sen and Now supported the CPI (M) and opposed the government's move to curb the democratic rights of the people by confining the political activists in jails. The crisis came to a head when Mr Kabir made some unsavoury remarks about Marxism, its irrelevance in this age of technological progress. That was around 1967 when Naxalbari struggles began to take shape, Samar Sen hailed the Naxalbari uprising with death-defying courage. In such a bizarre situation he was thinking of giving a concrete shape to the ideological orientation of Now. Right then the first salvo was directed at the editor. An instruction came from Mr Kabir that propagation of Marxism in the pages of this weekly could not be allowed. Samar Sen did not bat an eyelid. He moved ahead as usual. Finally Mr Kabir placed a tall order that an editorial had to be written in support of Bangla Congress, a party floated by him along with Ajay Mukherjee. Sen was the last man to follow the dictate. He relinquished the job (January, 1968) even though it meant for him embracing severe economic hardship. Before he resigned from the post of the editor a notice appeared in the front page:" I wish to inform all readers that with this issue I cease to be the editor of Now". Thus ended abruptly his bonhomie with Now. After that the weekly could be brought out by the Nation Trust under the editorship of Ajit Ray Mukherjee for a very brief period but it failed to draw the attention of the broad section of the politically sensitive English reading public. It was by itself a proof of the massive popularity Samar Sen enjoyed as the highly influential editor in the turbulent decade of 1960s.

Frontier and Samar Sen
After the fiasco of the Now episode Samar Sen decided not to join any other newspaper or journal owned by a corporate body or an individual over whose actions he would have no control. It might result in similar loss of job as nowhere the management would allow him to air his voice freely. So he set up Frontier as part of Germinal Publications, a private limited company, solely with contributions from his friends and relatives.

Frontier was born at a time when the Naxalite movement was spreading like a wildfire in various parts of the country. 'Though not a participant, Frontier became associated with the movement'. (Samar Sen's FOREWORD, Naxalbari and Aftera Frontier Anthology, Vol.1).The movement organized by the revolutionary Left exposed the myth of the parliamentary path as the way to liberation of the people. Frontier did not play the role of just an onlooker. It carried reports of struggles and analysis of the policies of those in authority together with objective assessments of the impact of the movement. Frankly speaking, Frontier was founded at a very crucial moment in the phase of development of class struggle when the first United Front government could not live up to people's expectations, though this government was formed to meet the demand for escalating and strengthening the mass movement. During the very short period of its life the gap between precept and practice widened and the Communist Party was thoroughly discredited as a social democratic party which was desperately trying to preserve the status quo and cling to power at any cost. It was indeed a time when the need for developing mass movement in a new way was widely felt. So was felt the need for a new organ of mass movements. Birth of Frontier was the logical culmination of this general demand.

In the first issue of Frontier (April 14, 1968), Ashoke Mitra under pseudonym Charan Gupta wrote in his 'Calcutta Diary' : "Here we surface again. We have a different address and different masthead; otherwise everything is very nearly the same". No. Everything did not remain nearly the same. Only the editor's integrity remained as firm as before. However from time to time on political questions differences began to grow with some of his old friends who had shifted to Frontier from Now. For example, Ashoke Mitra himself could not write in that magazine after probably February, 1970 as he felt that Frontier veered away from pluralistic leftism to radicalism for reasons unknown to him.

Some of the erstwhile contributors did not possibly agree with Samar Sen's lending support to the Naxalites. They might have thought that his accusation against the left parties in power as being responsible for murders and arson was misconceived. Samar Sen himself did not attach any importance to such criticisms. Seeking truth from facts was his mission. He wrote in his autobiography, Babu Brittanta (Babu's Tale. Tr. Asok Mitra) : 'Murders and arson had been started first by the Front constituents for expansion of power bases. Later it was carried down to the Naxalites. As the then home minister Jyoti Basu should admit, at least four Naxalites had to lay down their lives if one CPI(M) worker was killed. The police was in Basu's hands and not in the hands of the Naxalites.' From then on Frontier came to be known as a pro-Naxalite magazine. In fact, in the seventies this label was firmly attached to the weekly as reports of cold-blooded torture and murder of radical activists came pouring in from various corners of the country. Newspapers then were maintaining an eerie silence whenever there was a gross violation of human rights. Even if they carried some information it was all a police version. Only in the pages of Frontier one could get the real story.

It was not easy to run a small weekly in those dark days. The editor and the magazine were always under the scanner of police and watchful eyes of the state. The situation became more critical at the time of Bangladesh war in1971. The high tide of chauvinism swept away the parliamentary roaders. Official Marxists joined in the chorus of liberation to please Her Majesty and her men. The big Press made Mrs Gandhi a beacon of hope for the younger generations. In this scenario a section of the revolutionary left fell in the trap of jingoism. But Frontier remained steadfast in its task as a whistle-blower. Ridiculing the way the mukti yuddhha (liberation war) was fought with Indian support, it warned about the potential pitfalls of war. Very few editors had the courage to vociferously protest against the war when there was a countrywide flare-up of blind patriotism. The point to note is that a few of Samar Sen's admirers who used to write for Frontier did not accept the criticism of the war in good spirit. They also deserted the weekly.

With the parting of veteran writers their place was filled with newer ones. But Samar Sen never stopped or suspended publication of Frontier. A thin person and basically one with poor health had all along an indomitable courage to swim against the current. Only one such man could publish Frontier that was limping all the time with its shoe-string budget. We must not forget that he was a man with a family and the salary he drew every month was enough to put a revolutionary to shame. In financial terms both the editor and the magazine he edited shared the very same crisis right from 1970 onward. As a reward for his pungent comments and exposures of misdeeds of monopoly capital and the state, Frontier was denied government advertisements. As a natural corollary, Samar Sen had to accept voluntary salary cuts, though his salary was all the time much below the subsistence minimum.

Anyone scanning through the pages of Frontier during the first six months of its life will definitely find plenty of sharp focus on social democracy and Right opportunism, demagogy and false hopes roused in the minds of the people at large. While Right opportunism of the parliamentary left was severely crticised, Samar Sen was not blind to the dangers of Left adventurism. He did not hesitate to call the sincere followers of the line of individual annihilation as head hunters. Naxalites too attacked Frontier. Deshabrati wrote, three Fronts of the ruling classes are Frontier, Eastern Frontier Rifles and Frontier Gandhi. The plain and simple truth is that however much its adversaries try to malign Frontier as having a partisan role; this weekly even today remains non-partisan. Notwithstanding the fact that Samar Sen did not join any political party, his weekly published a number of serious debates on burning political issues (only a limited number of such articles found their place in Naxalbari and after—a Frontier anthology, Vol.2). Perhaps Samar Sen did not have adequate grounding in politics. So sometimes he had to face awkward situation.

Bhabani Chaudhury, an Associate of Samar Sen in Frontier for a brief period of 3 to 4 years, (I called him Bhabanida)described succinctly the decades of 1960's and 1970's as the tumultuous period in which repression and struggles followed each other in succession. We find Samar Sen in his unique and unwavering role in this difficult time. Journalism became his weapon with which he could reach intellectuals of all categories. Bhabanida did rightly observe : Now and Frontier edited by him showed for the first time how within the limits set by law it was possible to use pen as a sword only if one was determined to stand in support of struggles and one was bold enough to carry on relentlessly the fight against repression. We have still in our memory the days of early 1970's when the state machinery went on a killing spree at Baranagar, Behala, Beliaghata, Shibpur,Barasat and many other places, especially in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Hoodlums of the ruling party were found in a festive mood celebrating on the streets of Calcutta those acts of grisly crime. At that time the Big Press praised the government for its 'worthy' role in maintaining order. Similarly during the Emergency the established newspapers rubbed shoulders with the bureaucracy and the ruling elite. Samar Sen was one amongst a handful of urban intellectuals who had the courage to rise in revolt against all kinds of highhandedness of the State. Disgusted with the so-called discipline imposed on the people, Samar Sen had his own way to ridicule it. Readers of Frontier know that the text of the Republic Day presidential address delivered by Fakruddin Ali Ahmed was printed in Frontier by scribbling some lines here and there in a manner that produced a great uproar. For some days this issue became the talk of the town. In the stormy days Samar Sen was found in his true self. But as the storm subsided, he was depressed to see the bickering and dissension within the ranks of the revolutionaries. He would then fill the magazine with irrelevant stuff and would wait for brighter days to come.

The pertinent question is what are the Establishment and the world of media expected to do now when the Rebel is no more physically amongst us. We may refer to a conjecture by the Times of India (TOI). Samar Sen died at a time when two other major figures in Indian journalism passed away: Ramesh Thapar (editor of Seminar) and G K Reddy (editor of the New Delhi edition of the Hindu). The TOI wrote in an editorial, "Three Faces" (August 25, 1987) : 'For Samar Sen unlike for the other two, Doordarshan newscasters will not read out encomiums… His milieu was far removed from the glittering court of the powerful in New Delhi. His was the radical lonely though never shrill, voice of Indian society calling out from a small circulation paper (with a limited but a devoted band of followers) which never compromised either in its views or in its search for financial support'. So far, so good.

But the use of such words as" loner" or "radical" in describing Samar Sen poses a serious problem. He was never a radical. He never joined any political organization. People's movements and liberation struggles throw up writers as occasions so demand. When Samar Sen was in the picture, there were others too who played similar professional role in different corners of the country, may be they were not as efficient as Samar Sen. By calling Samar Sen a loner, we have no right to denigrate others.

On the occasion of his birthday celebration Samar Sen as a poet will attract more attention of his critics and admirers than Samar Sen as a journalist. In such analyses very little light will be thrown on Samar Sen as a journalist, though it remains a fact that in his five decade long active life, he devoted not more than 12 years to writing poetry. That apart, in the mature years of his life he consciously used his pen in writing prose. The problem lies in the fact that in Bengali he had not written much in prose, except Babu Brittanta. His prose writings are mostly in English. That is why Samar Sen's contribution to society will remain unknown to Bengali speaking people. Interestingly enough, sinister plans are afoot to denigrate Sen's role as editor of Now and Frontier. The media houses and the Establishment are careful enough to see to it that this writer with his laconic style is erased from our memory.

Samar Sen's contribution to social change can only be assessed properly by the genuine participants in struggles for emancipation of the masses. Self-seekers and those who dupe the masses for their narrow political ends are unable to understand why among several millions of Bengalis it is difficult to find someone parallel to Samar Sen. He was a Titan who stood firm like a rock till the end.

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