A Leftist Without Frontiers

The Bengal Left and Samar Sen

Sandip Bandyopadhyay

It was but natural that Samar Sen will emerge as a budding leftist youth in the 1930s. He would also make his mark as a promising poet and attract the attention of his senior contemporaries. His father Prof Arun Sen, known for his changing political stances, developed leftist leanings for a short period and the young Samar came into contact with such Marxist leaders as Radharaman Mitra and Bankim Mukherjee who stayed in their ancestral house for some time. As a young boy, he witnessed the growth of communist movement in Bengal at close quarters.

In 1937 Samar Sen dedicated his first book of poems to Muzaffar Ahmed, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India (CPI, undivided). It confirms his commitment to Marxism even as it may appear a bit surprising. Samar Sen was never a member of the CPI; nor did he grow up in the literary association of Marxists only. In his early life, he was close to Buddhadev Bose and Premendra Mitra who had no direct connection with the CPI, the former was rather known as anti-Marxist. More interestingly, till the mid-1940s, Samar Sen did not allow his belief in Marxism to cast shadow on his poetry, which rather evinced a despondent (if not decadent) state of mind. He did versify the Marxist doctrine of ‘being determined consciousness’ in one of his poems in the last phase of his short-lived poetic career. But, arguably, that was not a good poem by his own standards.

Meanwhile, Samar Sen had raised a storm with his article ‘In Defence of the Decadents’ in 1939. He boldly announced that ‘Consciousness of decay is also power’ and argued that when the ‘decayed side of things’ attracts the petty bourgeoisie, it is better to write about the class one knows well than to ‘exult in the future glories of a classless society’. As expected, he was virulently attacked by Saroj Datta, a potential Marxist writer and Samar Sen also issued a rejoinder in defence of his argument (1940).

Marxist discourse on art and literature in Bengal of those days has been well documented. Revisiting the Datta-Sen debate, one may however have the impression that Samar Sen stood apart from his contemporary leftist writers. Probably, he could not agree to the tenets of Marxist aesthetics—the Soviet brand—that was not only prevalent in those days but was considered almost invincible. Sen refused to adhere to any dogma. He rather came closer to what Georg Lukacs would later propound in ‘The Meaning of Contemporary Realism’ (1963). One may also find a reflection of Samar Sen’s view in Ernst Fischer’s ‘The Necessity of Art’ (1963).

It’s better to pick out couple of sentences from the much-debated 1939 article. Samar Sen maintains that the poet’s [writer’s] first task is to preserve his/her  ‘integrity’. By integrity he means being able to preserve ‘what is good in our past tradition’, to be ‘true to oneself’, to be ‘conscious of the complex forces changing our world’ and to realise the function of poetry as a medium for ‘adjust[ing] one’s relations to society’. And then he sums up : ‘To be able to preserve one’s personal integrity as a poet will help the progressive cause in the long run’.

‘Personal integrity’ seems to be the keyword in Samar Sen’s life-world. In order to preserve it, he struggled hard throughout his life and at too heavy a cost. He quit his jobs several times on the issue of ‘principle’, suffered economic insecurity and finally at the age of 52 staked his life on an unvarnished weekly magazine which enjoyed financial sustainabilty only for a while. The story is well-known. What needs to be remembered is his personal decision (regarding integrity) in the context of the leftist movement in Bengal. It should also be noted though the decision was personal, it affected his family. The ‘personal’ thus broadened into the ‘social’.

During the turbulent 1940s, Samar Sen was working in New Delhi. He left for the USSR with a translator’s job in 1957 and returned in the country in 1961. After a three-year stint with an English daily in Calcutta (now Kolkata) he resigned on ‘moral‘ grounds and joined NOW as its editor in 1964. It was the same year in which the CPI broke up. The leftist intelligentsia also got divided into two camps. While one section maintained a distance from him, some others who turned CPI(M) were in his close circle.

Recovering from the shock of India-China War (1962) and the subsequent rapture (1964), leftist movement in Bengal however gained momentum within two years. The great food movement of 1966 not only shook the entire state but scripted the ensuing downfall of the Congress rule to be enacted in the following year. As editor of NOW, Samar Sen was sympathetic to the United Front (UF) that replaced the Congress in 1967. He protested against its unfair dismissal by the governor in November, the same year. Samar Sen continued to support the UF. It was over this issue—his pro-left stance—that he earned the distrust of the NOW authorities and had to renounce his job.

Samar Sen started Frontier in 1968 and supported the UF during the 1969 elections, albeit reluctantly. Within himself he was increasingly growing sceptical of the CPI(M) and his attention turned to the Naxalite movement which had begun as a sporadic incident in 1967 but took shape in 1969. Samar Sen welcomed this new trend in Indian Communism which upheld the agrarian cause and called for armed struggle against the state. By the end of the year, the movement however changed its direction and, as one may put it, degenerated into senseless violence.

It was difficult for Samar Sen to reconcile himself to all that had been unfolding by the name of Naxalism since the end of 1969. He believed in preserving the best in India’s tradition. How could he then support crass iconoclasm, let alone the dangerous politics of individual killing which was then being glorified as class struggle! Samar Sen expressed his reservations against those activities and found himself lambasted in the pages of Deshobroti, the Naxalite organ in Bengali. Samar Sen might have felt a bit confused at this stage but he desperately tried to remain true to himself.

He did not forsake his belief in the radical left. He rather transformed his journal into a platform where various Marxist groups, who had shunned parliamentary politics, could vent their views. Samar Sen and his paper stood unparalleled on this count. There was no such leftist journal of this kind in those days. (It is to note that Frontier has been able to retain this character till this day.)

Confused though he might be, Samar Sen never lost his sense of personal integrity. What tormented him most was the unprecedented terror unleashed by the state in the name of curbing ‘extremism’. Indiscriminate arrest, merciless killing of youths in police custody or in the open street, torture of the prisoners, detention without trial—Frontier documented all the horrible excesses of the state machinery at a time when Bengal was burning and bleeding and there was no human rights organisation worth its name (APDR  came into being in 1972).

Samar Sen was aware of his enlightened middle-class background, his limitation as an individual and also that confusion (which sometimes seemed to be cynicism) was a fundamental element of his mental make-up. In his early youth, he preferred Subhash Chandra Bose to Gandhi but often disliked Bose’s politics. He supported the anti-fascist people’s war line of the CPI but not its decision to stay away from the Quit India Movement of 1942. Curiously enough, he once hailed Indira Gandhi’s attempt to cleanse the Congress of the old guys. Under the influence of the Naxalites, Samar Sen tilted towards Maoism but did not always approve of China’s foreign policy.

One may try to illustrate this trait of his personality with an issue of Frontier, published about forty five years ago. It was the Autumn number of 1972, a precious collection for this writer who has kept it preserved since the early years of his college days (incidentally the same college in which Samar Sen had studied).

In the editorial entitled ‘China-Japan’ Samar Sen praised Chou En-lai as a ‘brilliant Prime Minister’ but took strong exception to Chou’s recent letters to Yahya Khan of Pakistan and Sirimavo Bandarnaike of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Samar Sen did not support India’s intervention in the liberation struggle in East Pakistan (Bangladesh, 1971) and at the same time thoroughly disliked Chou’s friendly letter to Yahya Khan, the Army General who was responsible for the unspeakable atrocities on the ‘Bengalis in East Pakistan’. Samar Sen also felt grieved to find that Chou had belittled the Ceylonese insurrection as the act of a ‘handful of people who style themselves Gueverists’ and had even congratulated his Ceylonese counterpart on correct handling of the ‘chaotic situation’. Samar Sen, simply, couldn’t accept it.

The Frontier editorial after the mysterious death of Charu Majumdar in police custody (28 July 1972) has become proverbial. But a few months later, in the Autumn Number, Samar Sen didn’t hesitate to publish an unsigned piece—‘The Lessons of Birbhum’—which strongly criticised Majumdar’s line of annihilation and slammed him for his short-sightedness: ‘Charu Majumdar did not give the slightest idea about what the armed forces of the state could do to the revolutionaries and how the latter could fight back’. The unknown correspondent was also critical of Majumdar’s view that ‘open mass organisation work was an obstacle to the genesis and spread of guerilla warfare’. Thus Samar Sen paid his heart felt tribute to the ‘martyred’ Charu Majumdar but didn’t desist from publishing an article that almost thrashed Majumdar’s line of political thinking. This is what characterises Samar Sen and his Frontier.

In his memoir and diary, Samar Sen repeatedly said that he had no ‘illusion’ about the CPI(M)-led Left Front that came to power in West Bengal in 1977. But he did not snap his ties with some pro-CPI(M) intellectuals, particularly a veteran intellectual-turned-minister of the Front. He could preserve his integrity keeping himself free from narrow sectarianism. But he would never compromise on the issue of principle. As Timir Basu told this writer, very few intellectuals helped Frontier when it was in dire economic straits.

Samar Sen saw the first ten years of Leftist rule in West Bengal. With his failing health, often absent from office, he would observe with anguish the gradual decay of leftism in Bengal and the corruption and opportunism of the leftists in power. In December 1986, eight months before his death, he signed a note of protest against the controversial ‘Hope-86’ programme presided over by no other than the Leftist Chief Minister. He published in Frontier an article of this writer against the said programme but, true to his editorial principle, he omitted his name from the list of protesters, referred to, in the article.

Well-wishers are observing Samar Sen’s birth centenary at a time when the degradation of the leftists has come full cycle in West Bengal. In the recent Assembly elections (April-May, 2016), they joined hands with the Congress in their bid to capture votes. The result is that they are now bitting the dust. Is the centenarian Samar Sen turning in his grave? Probably not. He is perhaps looking the other way completely ignoring those who pose as leftists in the present day West Bengal. This is the image that comes to mind. It very much characterises Samar Sen, an upright individualist at one level; and at the other, a life-long leftist with no frontiers.

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