A Tribute

Sketch of a Rebel

Mihir Chakraborty

Noted student leader of the seventies, political activist and one of the founders of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), Subhas Chandra Ganguly passed away on November 6, 2023. He is survived by his wife and lifelong Comrade Bharati Ganguly.

Subhas was born in 1947 in a village of Kumilla district of present Bangladesh, a few months before the partition of India. His father Rishikesh Ganguly and mother Lila Ganguly both were in the Government service in the R R Department and had to move from one place to another. Subhas was brought up in the family of his uncle who resided in a place near Halisahar of the present North 24 Parganas district. He received his early education at Jetia High School from where he passed the school final examination. He got admitted to the Pre-University course at Moulana Azad College, Kolkata and stayed in the Hindu Hostel which played a key role in shaping the famous students’ movement of Presidency College in subsequent years. After finishing Pre-University course Subhas enrolled himself as a B.Sc. student in the Statistics Department of Presidency College and continued to stay in the Hindu Hostel. During this period the campus-shaking student movement took place which was initiated in August, 1966 by the hunger strike of the inmates of the hostel demanding resignation of the then hostel superintendent professor Haraprasad Mitra. The movement got momentum and wide support after expulsion of seven students for providing leadership in the agitation. Subhas, though not at the centre of the stir, got involved as a young man with sensibility and this involvement gave him the first lessons of mass movement, rebellion and exposure to the nature of collusion between the ruling elites in the society – between college authority, education administration, media and state government. To him the much highlighted elitist portrayal of Presidency College as the centre of excellence and the notion of ‘so called academic excellence per se’ got shattered and the real picture behind the illuminated façade was revealed. Subhas wrote a memoir in the Bengali magazine ‘Anustup’ on this episode which is an excellent analytical report.

After Presidency College Subhas took admission in the department of statistics of the University of Calcutta which was located at Ballygunge Circular Road, the Campus of CU being popularly known as Ballygunge Science College. Here he met Timir Basu, a former student of Geology and others who had been running a students’ outfit called PGSF--Post Graduate Students’ Federation. Subhas joined PGSF and within a short time emerged as a popular student leader. His past experience in Presidency College was instrumental in making him a mature activist. He also studied Marxist Literature quite seriously and gradually became an ideologue in the communist revolutionary camp. He was one of the main contributors in the organ of National Liberation and Democratic Front (NLDF), the political organisation to which PGSF had been linked at one point of time. It was here at Ballygunge Science College that Subhas met Bharati Chatterjee, a student of Zoology Department. In course of time she also joined PGSF. Both Subhas and Bharati got involved in Calcutta University students’ movement, particularly in Ballygunge Science College campus. They became life-partners formally later in 1974.

Bharati hailed from an urban family of South Calcutta. Her father Khetragopal Chattopadhyay was a professor and her mother was Mukti. PGSF primarily organised movements on campus issues. Subhas was the General Secretary of the students’ union during 1968-’69 and Bharati was elected to the same post during 1969 - ’70. However, that was a period of great political upheaval, not only in Bengal but in other parts of India as well as in the international arena. In 1967, the Congress regime was overthrown by a coalition government of which the leftist parties formed a major partner. Vietnam was fighting its final battle against the US occupation. Students and workers together were on the streets fighting with the establishment all over Europe. Among the Indian Marxists fierce debate was taking place as regards the proper path to overthrow the ruling class in favour of people at large, the working class in particular. Under this situation students cannot keep themselves confined to the local narrow demands only. PGSF also debated on the general larger issues and at one point of time established strong link with the political group NLDF which was working under the leadership of Parimal Bhattacharya and his associates, mainly Sanjay Mitra and Yogin Sengupta.

All political activities virtually came to a halt in 1970 when Subhas, Timir and Sanjay were arrested. After about one year Subhas and Timir came out of the jail when their political organisation was in total disarray. Sanjay was released one year later. G iven the changed political atmosphere of those days they looked for different ways to continue their political identities. Subhas and Sanjay engaged themselves in the movement for the release of political prisoners and civil liberty leading ultimately to the formation of APDR while Timir engaged himself in labour organising, trade union movement and free-lance journalism.

The early period of formation of APDR has been narrated in an article by Subhas under the title ‘এপিডিয়ার শুরুর দিনগুলি’ [The Early Days of APDR (1972-77)], published in 1991 and republished on November 30, 2023 by APDR to pay homage to Subhas. This booklet is an excellent account of the terror-stricken time in West Bengal under the rule of S S Roy which, however, started much earlier during the regime of the united front government. It also portrays the outstanding role played by some elderly personalities such as freedom fighter Sushil Banerjee (popularly known as Dadu), Kapil Bhattacharya, Kalyani Bhattacharya (Das), Pramode Ranjan Sengupta and others. Younger persons namely Sanjay Mitra, Dilip Choudhury and Amal Bose took the responsibilities of Joint Assistant General Secretary and Treasurer respectively. Subhas (along with Bharati) got deeply involved in organising the association in that extremely hostile situation. Due to the relentless efforts by these few pioneers APDR was getting its ground in Kolkata, West Bengal and elsewhere. Two most significant events in which Subhas had a major role in organising a demonstration of women whose near ones were suffering in jails and second, publication of the book ‘ভারতীয় গণতন্ত্রের স্বরূপ’ [The Real Face of Indian Democracy]. The demonstration was organised on February 12, 1973. About 35 elderly women–mothers, wives, sisters of political prisoners–belonging to middle class and lower middle class families most of whom first time in life on the street in a rally, guarded by police vans in the front and the rear–it was a unique scene in Calcutta otherwise known as a city of rallies. Subhas and Sanjay, perhaps the only two male participants, distributed leaflets to the passersby. A delegation led by Jayasree Rana, wife of well known naxalite leader Santosh Rana met the chief minister S S Roy who, however, did not show any positive attitude.

The book mentioned was almost entirely written by Subhas. The main donors for the publication were Dr Amiya Bose and Kalyani Bhattacharya. But Dr Bose passed away before the book came to light for which Subhas expressed his grief in his booklet on the early days of APDR. At one point of time, under the initiative of APDR and Legal Aid Committee, mothers, wives and sisters of political prisoners staged a sit-in demonstration in Esplanade East along with relay fasting in support of the continued fasting of prisoners inside the jails. It was quite successful in that at the request of APDR a team of 10 political parties including CPI(M), Forward Bloc, Workers Party, SUCI, and RSP met the then Governor expressing support to the hunger strikers in the jails and outside. In 1976 Indira Gandhi Government clamped internal emergency when APDR was banned. Subhas and Sanjay had to go underground. After the lifting of emergency in 1977, APDR started functioning again. Meanwhile some important personalities such as Dadu, Kapil Bhattacharya and Pramode Sengupta passed away, among the young activists, Debashis Bhattacharya took charge of the joint secretary replacing Sanjay Mitra. A new phase of APDR began.

Subhas wanted to devote more time in studies. He did not complete the Masters Degree and never entered a regular job. Bharati was employed in AG Bengal and hence Subhas could afford to engage himself in the pursuit of knowledge. Subhas entered deep into varied subjects like statistics, mathematics, Marxism, human civilisation, philosophy, human rights, education system, psychology, quantum mechanics etc. It seems that he was in a sense re-organising his entire understanding of Marxist perception of society and revolution. But he never dissociated himself from mass movement. He was seen with RatikantaHazra by the side of the workers on hunger strike at the gate of Kanoria Jute Mill. He was also present by the side of the struggling peasants in Nandigram when nobody else who later usurped their movement was noticed around. Hazra was a political whole-timer owing allegiance to ‘Bhitti’ Group. However, he was mainly reading, writing and helping privately some students in academic matters.

In 1993 Subhas published a detailed report in the Frontier on the ArchanaGuha case in which the infamous police officer RunuGuhaNeogi and his associate Santosh Dey, were convicted for torturing three women ArchanaGuha, LatikaGuha and Gauri Chatterjee in the police custody. This report was prototypical example of honest, objective, justified and at the same time humanely reporting of a heinous socio-political event. PUCL (Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties) selected Subhas for the 16th PUCL ‘Journalism for Human Rights’ award for the above article. It would be worthwhile to quote from the citation in this context which runs as follows.

“The present article is about the notorious case of arrest and torture of three women by the Calcutta police on 18th July 1974. Involved in the arrest were Ranajit (Alias Runu) GuhaNeogi, a police officer and Santosh Dey, a constable… The three women who were arrested were ArchanaGuha, the Head Mistress of a Junior High School, LatikaGuha, her sister-in-law, and Gauri Chatterjee, another young relative from their residence in a suburb of north-eastern Calcutta. They were illegally detained for more than 24 hours before being taken to the Court… They were confined to police custody for 27 days… The torture led to complete paralysis of the lower limbs of Archana. Later, much later, the medical group of Amnesty International in Denmark got Archana treated medically at the Copenhagen Rehabilitation Centre for torture victims.”

It is also important to mention that of the award money of Rs 20,000, Subhas donated Rs 18,000 to Frontier and Rs 2,000 to SaumenGuha (brother of ArchanaGuha) as assistance. True, Subhas was no longer active in APDR but he was very much with the cause as a writer-activist.

A similar instance is his involvement and concern in opposing the death sentence of Dhananjay Chatterjee, a poor security guard of a multi-story housing. He was charged for raping and killing of a teenager girl Hetal Parekh. Dhananjay had been languishing in jail for past 14 years. In spite of protests, appeals and demonstrations by citizens, the death sentence was executed on August 14, 2004. Surprisingly, Mira Bhattacharya, wife of the then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya took unprecedented initiative in fomenting hatred among common people on Dhananjay–the reason of such unusual act on the part of Smt Bhattacharya however, was and still is in darkness. In truth, the issue of abolishment of death sentence and the method of its execution came down to the public domain. Everybody in West Bengal at least, was highly disturbed and debated on it. Subhas went a step further by writing an appeal to the then President of India, Prof. Dr A Kalam Azad under the title “Against Death Sentence–An Appeal To The President of India”. The appeal begun with the following sentence: “As an Indian Citizen totally opposed to death penalty, I appeal with all the sincerity at my command to you to rescind the death sentence on Dhananjay Chatterjee of Calcutta, and four peasants in Bihar and on any other person whose last petition may be lying before you, thus paving the way for ultimate abolition of the provision from our statute book.” This sentence makes clear Subhas’s stance on this issue which was and is the position of many others not only in West Bengal but all over the world. The important point here is that Subhas could not sit idle and drafted the mind of many and presented that to the President. Dr Kalam, however, did not comply with the appeal. Subhas then sent another letter to him on August 6, 2004 that ended with following few sentences:

“There is not much point in writing this letter of course, except to communicate the sense of deep anguish at the impending cold-blooded slaughter of a human being to a fellow citizen who was in a position to prevent this whole sordid business. I am not even sure that this message will reach you at all, given the popular impression about the nature of atmosphere that supposedly surrounds the dignitaries of the state of India. In deep anguish and with regards–’’

These two letters may be considered as instances of expression of democratic values, cry of humanity, exposure of a deaf state-system and of literary excellence. These were published (with Bengali translations) in the little magazine বিজ্ঞান ও বিজ্ঞানকর্মী (BOB, 2004).

If one looks into Subhas’s literary engagements, there are at least the following testimonies: translation in Bengali of RomilaThapar’s book “Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas” (K.P. Bagchi& Co, Kolkata), Hundred Songs of Rabindranath Tagore (Papyrus, Kolkata), ‘সাগরঘেরা আন্দামান ও নিকোবর দ্বীপমালার পথে পথে’ [Enroute to the Sea-bound Andaman and Nicobar Islands] (Ruby Publishers, Kolkata). One can see how variedly he had distributed himself! Of these what attracts this writer most is the translation of Tagore songs. What caused this? Why was Subhas pulled so much in this direction? One learns from the preface of his book that it all started with the spontaneous translation of two songs heard from a record by noted singer KanikaBandyopadhyay when he and Bharati were in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in 2003. Bharati went there on an official tour. As stated by Subhas himself, the “green islands coupled with inviting sounds from the lashing sea waves” brought out the first two translations and then out of his “inner journeys through the originals” other translations “surfaced in bunches from time to time”. A Bengali reader will be amazed to notice the selection of songs he has translated. Besides his ‘inner journey’ according to Subhas again “Different external factors at different times contributed towards selection”.

Besides “the wonderful, bewitching and humbling experience of the surrounding nature” during Subhas’s visit to the islands, he also had “some sad/painful realisations”. One can find them in his abovementioned book, the travelogue. This book is not an ordinary travelogue. On the title page, quite unusually, the writer declares a few poetry–like sentences that are translated below:

About one an half decade ago (2003-04) arrived suddenly a traveller, trounced, enchanted as well as pain-struck, a few portrayals of pictures drawn in his eyes, mind and heart, some thoughts and feelings and realisations. Natural environment making our head to bow down, the cruel touch of ‘civilisation’ on ‘uncivilised’ tribal people (জনজাতি). The book is dedicated to the sea-surrounded islands, creeks, forests, animals, birds and above all to primitive people, who have been made foreigners by ‘modern civilisation’ in their own land since pre-historic time– with all humbleness and humility.

However, below are mentioned the contents of this small book of about 90 pages:

An addition in advance (on Andaman Trunk Road or ATR)
Letters from Car Nicobar and Andaman:
(The main contents of the book, 10 letters written by Subhas to friends,
Sibu, Rabin and Surasree)
CandureGangaforing (a poem)
The “Ferocious’ Jaroa of Andaman–Role of the Government and Silence of newspapers.

Within the main part is included an outstanding letter of Bharati written to the Tribal Council of Nicobar on Sea-beach Pollution as regards the misuse of the stretch of sea-shore from Malacca jetty running along the Rajib Gandhi Park as open PUBLIC TOILET by a group of people. Subhas himself was deeply concerned about environmental issues and wrote articles relating them with the prevailing tradition (see for example BOB, 2009, Calcutta Book Fair issue). He extensively quoted Tagore and BibhutibhusanBandyopadhyay in this connection.

He published a 300-page-book on Science, Science Education and Science Activism in the year 2018. After the decline of radical Marxist political movement, at least in West Bengal came up various science clubs and popular science journals apparently with the objective to arouse science-awareness, scientific attitude among the masses and as a consequence eradicating superstition especially generated from religious practices. There was perhaps a belief that if people thought scientifically (which was equated with rationality), they would be drawn towards Marxism or scientific materialism which was considered in fact true. (Marxism is true since it is based on science). It was a phenomenon of the eighties that former political activists found refuge in popular science activism that mushroomed in hundreds all over West Bengal. Subhas made a critique of this type of activity by persons having so- called ‘scientific temper’ who “attempt, from a self-assumed role/air of superior wisdom, to spread through what is usually termed as ‘People’s Science Movement’, their such understanding of ‘Science’ to ‘enlighten’ those, supposedly under the spell of ‘Religion’, identified with major part of existing social evils and prejudices”. In fact he went through the writings of great masters like Einstein, Infield, Heisenberg, Feynman, Oppenheimer, Hawking, Eddington etcetera to understand the basic philosophy and methods of science and arrived at the realisation that what was being done under the name of ‘ people’s science movement’ was not the essence of science. Not only the activists of science organisations, he criticised science-education in general as was in vogue in the academic institutions, since this education system generally does not expose the learner to the great awe, wonder and mystery prevailing in the universe surrounding the society. The basic criticism is explained in the following quote:

“Schools, universities….they all go on forcing you to become knowledgeable….The more you know the less you wonder…a right kind of education will never do this. It will give you knowledge, but it will not destroy your wonder,… on the contrary knowledge can make you more wondering.”

As a consequence of his extensive studies, Subhas was questioning the scientific basis of so-called Marxist practices that were going on around him of which he himself was once a participant.

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Vol 56, No. 40, Mar 31 - Apr 6, 2024