A Return to Humanism

Voices from the Inside Out

Anup K Sinha

I grew up in a house in North Calcutta in the Shyambazar locality, on what was then called Upper Circular Road. The address was 158/A. It was an apartment building with eight flats that were rented out by the owners. It was a six storied building quite tall by the standards of those times. The building was constructed in 1939. This building was well known to people involved with the Communist Party of India, since Ajoy Ghosh used to live there for a while. Later another left intellectual associated with the CPI, Chin Mohan Sehanavis lived there until 1959. My parents, who lived in the same building, were both connected with the communist movement in the 1940s and 1950s. I grew up in a politically charged atmosphere and had the opportunity to see many stalwarts of the early left movement in India. I was too young to understand politics at that time but most of the CPI leaders were "uncles" or "aunts" to me. On the opposite side of the main road was a sprawling slum where migrant workers lived—mainly from Bihar—who worked in the large number of flour mills and oil mills in the neighbourhood. Skirting the slum were about half a dozen tea stalls which hardly did much business. My father told me that most of them had been set up by the Intelligence Bureau of the police to keep a tab on the happenings at 158/A.

After the CPI split in the mid sixties, my father seemed to be supporting the newly formed CPI (M) while my mother appeared to be more drawn to the old CPI. There would be major political arguments at home. My father used to work for the South Eastern Railway and was involved in the railwaymen's union there. I hardly understood the polemics of the split. However, I grew up with a deeply ingrained understanding that poverty and deprivation was an unfair and avoidable social outcome, and that justice would have to be fought for. It would not come automatically. I also knew that a few countries namely the USSR and the People's Republic of China were experimenting with new social and political systems that could be a model for the poor people of the world to follow. I was drawn into direct politics for the first time in the general elections of 1967. A lot of posters for left candidates were painted from my home. In those days it was poster colours, brushes and old newspapers that would be gummed up against walls. There was no question of prints or graffiti.

Then there was the news of the Naxalbari movement and many more debates at home. My father's friends Sunil Basu of National Book Agency and Saroj Dutta were regular visitors at home. This time I was acquainted with some political literature. I had read the Communist Manifesto and Ralph Fox's Communism. I was desperately trying to understand what Naxalbari signified and how was it different from CPI and CPI (M). There were some things that I also began noticing about my "uncles" and "aunts". An aunt would come to our house to ask my mother for a soiled and shabby sari so that she could wear it in some meeting in a poor village. In many of my "uncle's" homes, two kinds of rice would be cooked—one for the servants (a cheaper coarser variety) and another one (a more expensive finer grain) for the members of the family. On one occasion during a wedding in one of my parent's friend's family the food was remarkably simple; rice, a dal, a vegetable curry and fish. This was followed by sandesh. A large number of party activists were invited. Later that night, on returning home, I learnt from my mother that the new bride had been given diamonds and other jewels of considerable monetary worth. There was an anomaly somewhere that I could not reconcile.

In the autumn of 1968 I did see a new magazine on my father's table that I had not seen before. It was called Frontier. I asked my father whether it was a party journal and he said that it was not. I did not read it. My board examinations were coming and I was supposed to enter college in the summer of 1969. In April 1969 came the headline news that yet another Communist Party had been formed this time with an added letter of the alphabet—the CPI (M-L). This was the party that was formed by the Naxalites who did not believe in parliamentary politics.

I was ready for college in the next couple of months. My family wanted me to study medicine. It was not for the money. It was for another economic reason. My elder sister was already in medical college and she was a brilliant student. So I was going to inherit her expensive books and notes, and of course, the occasional guidance and academic tutelage. I liked Biology as a subject and I was lucky enough to get my name on the first list of Calcutta Medical College. However, I was adamant that I study Economics. I was almost certain that an understanding of Economics would help me change the world much more than being a doctor and helping a few people by offering professional care. My parents allowed me to choose according to my preference though. I was given to understand that the subject of Economics was best taught at Presidency College. No one had studied Economics in my family before. But Presidency College was already in the news for being the hot-bed of Naxalite politics and the ultra-left movement.

Now it was my parents' turn to become anxious about my future. They were almost certain that given my background of coming from a political family that was otherwise not glamorous or powerful, I would become a supporter of the Naxalite movement. I would not finish my studies. I would land up in jail. There were a few stories coming out of Presidency and from my extended family about bright young minds becoming members of the CPI (M-L). Yet my parents let me go and join Presidency. By the time I joined the college, I realised that the 'heroes' of the left—Ashim Chatterjee, Dipanjan Roy Chowdhury, Ranabir Sammadar, Santosh Rana, Sanjoy Chettri, Amal Sanyal all had left the college and were 'underground', presumably working in some rural area. There were, however, other members of the CPI (M-L) visible in college, including some of my own batch mates.

Two things struck me about politics at Presidency. The first was that there was an atmosphere of fear in college and there was no scope of any debate or political discussion. There was a perpetual apprehension of physical violence. Maoism was something beyond interrogation or contest. Anybody opposing Maoism (or even just not actively supporting the cause of the agrarian revolution) was a class enemy, or at least termed as a reactionary lackey of imperialism. The second thing that my instinct told me (perhaps given the huge reaction from the press and the existing political establishment) that this was possibly something of historical significance—with positives as well as many negative aspects. It was going to be a watershed in Indian politics.

It was at this time that I started reading the 'Frontier'. I always purchased it from Patiram's stall at the College Street—Harrison Road junction. Frontier gave me a reasonably good idea of the politics of that time as well as a better understanding of political arguments. It seemed much more nuanced and diverse compared to the party organs of the time like Liberation or Deshobrati or other newspapers that represented left political opinion. On the other hand the establishment press was obviously highly critical of a wayward generation completely led astray by manipulative politicians who did not care about the formal education and careers of bright young citizens who could become civil servants or corporate managers.

I began to grow quite frustrated with the student politics on College Street. At home my father had gone into mental depression and was under medical treatment. I was instructed by the doctor not to discuss politics with him. My mother also strangely began to avoid political discussions but would often listen to me with care and concern especially when I narrated my college experiences to her. I slowly realised that any politics that shunned debate and practised violence as a modus operandi was not going to succeed. Also burning books and laboratory equipment was not something I liked. Not only that, I began to question whether all varieties of extreme politics of left and right converged in terms of tactics. I opposed the politics of violence and was much enamoured by the role Indira Gandhi played in the making of Bangladesh. I joined the Congress to restore some sanity into college activities and academics. Soon I realised that I was completely wrong. Violence was an integral part of politics of the time. What was implicit and hidden in the 1950s and 1960s was now overt. The rot of parliamentary democracy was patently evident.

Soon after I left all politics and continued with my academic pursuits. I remember an article by the well known economist Amit Bhaduri that appeared in Frontier in 1973 on semi-feudalism in Indian agriculture. This was a watershed article on rural India that led to widespread debate and discussion about the structure of Indian agriculture, and whether capitalism could ever come about in that sector. Frontier had suddenly become more than a mature newspaper free from the compulsions of the bourgeois press. It had become more of an academic journal. Since then a number of quality academic articles were published in the Frontier throughout the 1970s.

By the mid-seventies India had witnessed its first taste of a strong state with fascist overtones and the whole experience of political emergency. The fragility of Indian democracy became so clear. Frontier survived all those troubled days. Many friends who were avid readers of Frontier were great admirers of the editor Samar Sen. They almost hero worshipped him. I had never met the great man. But Frontier to me was much more than an individual. It represented a repository of ideas that I would not easily find anywhere else in those days.

In this context I remember a small incident that took place somewhere in the early 1970s. I was sitting in the Indian Coffee House on College Street with a group of friends. One of them was a Naxalite activist. I think he studied Geology. I got into an argument with him about conditions in Indian agriculture and the formation of class among the peasantry. It was a very rare instance where a debate was continuing without any threat of turning into physical violence. Yet I remember distinctly that many of my "neutral" friends quietly left the table not knowing where the argument would go to. I finally ran out of steam and said that I would get him to read an article in Frontier that would convince him of my argument. I brought the copy the next day. He was convinced and the argument was closed!

My personal experience of College Street and Presidency College was very intense and vibrant. I saw state violence at close quarters as well as extreme left politics. I possibly learnt more of life's lessons outside the class room than in the books I read on economics, or the few class lectures that were possible during the troubled times. I could have become a member of the Naxalite movement, or I could have continued my stint in the Congress party. But I rejected both. I was confused but did realise that neither formal economics I learnt in my college curriculum, nor the politics I saw and witnessed would change the world the way I wanted. Amongst many other influences I think Frontier played a role in helping me realise and assess the reality I lived in. Was it a mature decision? Was I just making the inevitable middle class compromise? I still do not know. I still wish I could change the world in my own way. I simply do not know how to realise the utopian dream. Frontier was an integral part of the milieu in which I spent the prime of my youth and the journal had played a role in teaching me to doubt everything. Was it something good? I think it was. We are witnessing the advent of a new and vicious kind of extremism, this time on the far right of the political spectrum. The role of a journal like Frontier remains as significant, possibly more than ever before.

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018