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Satya Ranjan Maitra: A life with revolutionary proletarian practice

Farooque Chowdhury

srmaitra

Satya Ranjan Maitra epitomized love for and allegiance to people, serving people, and revolutionary proletarian practice in Bangladesh. Satya Maitra breathed to his last on April 8, 2018. He was 96. Of this near-century, colonial and neo-colonial political sytems sent him to prisons at different times, which in total was more than two decades. 

Satya Maitra was suffering from health complications for years. With his passage, a chapter in the history of Bangladesh people’s struggle comes to its conclusion. He had to fight right opportunism and left adventurism while organizing workers and peasants. He took stand against revisionism and ultra-left practice throughout his life-long work among the working people.

Satya Maitra was born on February 9, 1923 in a Bangladesh village.

His paternal ancestral home was, as he told in an interview, a small land-holding household at Bhabani Pur under Atrai in the northern Rajshahi region.

Satya Maitra, eldest among his five brothers, was son of Saralaa Baalaa Debee, mother, and Neetyo Gopal Maitra, father, a physician.

During his early days, he witnessed torture of landlors on the poor peasants, which made a lasting impression on his outlook of life. The pain he suffered pressed him to view around with a new perspective. Inequality encompassing the society appeared in front of his eyes as a bigger reality. There were practices humiliating to the poor peasantry. The poor tax payers were not allowed to walk wearing shoes and using umbrellas while they passed houses of landlords and the powerfuls. Many questions began haunting him.

He studied at Bhabani Pur upto class six. Then, he was sent to Korakdee, a village under Goalanda in the central Faridpur region. Korakdee was home of his maternal uncles. He was born in this village, a small settlement of upper caste Hindoos and landlords.

With two secondary-level schools and a library with a rich collection of rare books, an uncommon development in the colonial Bengal rural life, the conservative village widely pursued education and cultural activities holding strongly its age-old heritage. Youth in the closely-knitted village were active in their club, drama circle, other cultural organizations, and sports that cropped up centering the library. Maitra extensively studied in the library.

Amal Saanaal, [mainly spelled Sanyal] a maternal uncle of Maitra, returned home after graduation. As a student of history, Amal had a lot of stories to tell. Within a short time, Amal was embraced by the young of the village. Maitra was among them. Maitra’s first lessons of politics were from Amal.

The village youth gathered around Amal, and Amal began telling his stories – histories of the world, of human, of struggles by the oppressed. Amal’s political identity – communist – gradually began to unfold as his stories continued.

Amal was the first to tell Maitra the stories of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Maitra’s acquaintance with own land – village, region, people – were also through the help of Amal. Political literature began to reach the youth through Amal, who was versed with Marxism. He was with the Communist Party. Amal regularly held study circle. He also brought out Mashaal, Torch, a hand-written magazine, in the village. Thus he used to spread the light of knowledge for liberation of humanity.

Gradually, Amal and other leaders suggested Satya Maitra to begin organizing students. Maitra initiated his task at school. As associated with the Student Fedration, the student wing of the Communist Party, Maitra tried to organize a strike opposing an organization initiated by colonial administration. He was, at the time, a student of class eight. The administration threatened him with police officials to desist him from organizing the planned strike. His maternal uncle was also threatened that he had to lose zamindari, landlordship, due to his nephew’s activities. Maitra had to leave his maternal uncle’s home. However, this accelerated his political work.

Korakdee was also a center of politics against the colonial British masters. Educated youth from the landlord families were embracing the spirit of independence and liberation. They were connected to Anushilan and Jugaantar, clandestine organizations aiming independence through armed movement. Many of the village were in prisons.

The Communist Party was trying to organize the peasantry. Night schools for the peasantry were organized as part of buiding up awareness. Lessons on politics were also imparted in those schools.

Communists of the village were coming back home as they were released from prison after serving their terms. Maitra’s lesson with communist politics continued as he came into contact with them.

One of these communists was Shomen Bhattaachaarja [also spelled Bhattacharya]. He was near to eight years behind bars. Bhattaachaarja, a man with immense knowledge, was a leader of the peasant masses. He had extensive inter-action with the peasantry in the villages of the landlords of Korakdee.

Maitra came in close contact with Bhattaacharjaa. Maitra accompanied Bhattaacharjaa whenever the peasant leader went to villages. It turned late at night as they returned home. On the way home, Bhattaacharjaa talked politics, education, and his experience. That was Maitra’s real primary schooling in peasant politics. Maitra began to understand peasant life through Bhattaacharjaa’s experience. But, Maitra’s formal education was turning worse.

Maitra completed his school final examination in 1940. He was a student leader at Goalanda subdivision, a part of Faridpur district during the period. He got enrolled at the Rajendra College in Faridpur town. At college, he turned out as a district-level student leader as he turned active at the district committee of student organization.

The Communist Party asked Maitra and other leaders and activists to spread the message of communal harmony and mutual assistance during communal riots in the area. He also used to go among the poor peasantry.

The poor peasantry was in a very precarious condition having nothing. Torture by landlords was beyond limit. Maitra’s meetings with the poor peasants continued till late night.

The World War spread its flames. Maitra was secretary of the district committee of the Student Federation. As a student leader he used to visit schools and colleges to address students, and his lectures opposing the imperialist war contained anti-British messages. This led colonial authorities to arrest him in 1940. That was 11 days after he got enrolled in Rajendra College.

In Faridpur town, he lived in a small room. That was his place of study and writing. He penned an article opposing Gandhi’s politics during the time. On a late night, about 30 policemen cordoned his room and arrested him. He was sentenced to 1-year imprisonment. His entire family cut all contacts with him as the jail term began.

About two dozen communist leaders including Abanee Laaheeree [also spelled Abani Lahiri] and Amal Saanaal were behind bars in Faridpur. Maitra was the youngest among them. He was treated as an ordinary prisoner. The leaders tutored him.

He was arrested again from jail gate as he came out of jail serving his term. But, no case was filed against him. A detention order was issued. Senior leaders including Bhabani Sen were in jail. They suggested Maitra to continue with his formal study. He followed their suggestion. Maitra was transferred to Faridpur, Rajbari, Kumilla [once spelled Comilla] and Presidency Jails. Party leaders sent a petition to the Kolkata University to allow him to appear in examination. Only four months were in waiting before the exam. Comrades in jail helped him in his preparation for exam. He passed the exam. He was released from Jail in 1942.

Political education in jail transformed Maitra completely. His philosophy for life changed. He came out of jail with a vow to keep himself engaged with the struggle for liberation of the exploited.

An almost dramatic incident was waiting for him as he reached Korakdee. He found his father there. A meeting of communist leaders was going on in the village. His father invited all the leaders to his home and handed over his son – Maitra – to them with the demand: Maitra should complete his formal studies while continuing with politics. Please, take care of his studies. I have no other demand. After completion of the formal study, he is at liberty. Engage him with work as you wish.

Maitra feels this decision of his father helped him to be a political worker.

He continued with his formal education. He got enrolled in BA class in the Rajendra College.

In December 1942, Maitra was made candidate member of the Communist Party. He was made a member of the Party in February, 1943. A few months later, in the district conference of the Party he was made member of district committee.

He could not appear in the BA final examination in 1944 as he fell sick.

Many members of his family including his mother and brothers permanently migrated to Kolkata in 1944. The same was also in Korankdee with maternal uncles. However, his father stayed at Naogaon with his profession. The family was torn into two parts.

He was to appear in BA exam next year. But the Party told him to begin work among workers. Maitra’s studies interrupted permanently.

The country was in turmoil as partition of the country was going to proceed. In this circumstance, it was announced that Jyoti Basu, a communist leader, was going to be a candidate for legislative assembly election, which was scheduled for 1946. The vast Paksey railway division, from Paksey to Goalaunda via Bhatia Para, was a stronghold of the railway workers. Maitra was sent to work among the railway workers following instruction from the provincial committee of the Party.

He had no experience of work among workers. Moreover, most of the workers were non-Baangaalee. He failed to understand their language. However, language barrier could not stand as a barrier between the toilers and the organizer. Basu was elected.

As a whole-time worker, Maitra was in the secretariat of the district committee of the Party.

Organizing a fund began as the Party decided to bring out a newspaper. Maitra visited home and delivered a lecture in front of his parents and other relatives. Ladies in the family including his mother contributed ornaments, his father donated paddy. A political relation with the family, thus, got established.

His work among the railway workers was related to their organization, demands and political education. Politics of anti-British colonial rule was also carried forward. His work among the railway workers was cut short as he was again imprisoned within a year. However, 27 railway workers got membership of the Party within one year.

Maitra was expelled from Paksey division shortly after forming the state of Pakistan in late-1947. He was warned that he would be arrested if he entered the area. His underground life began.

Maitra considers that the line for seizure of political power didn’t develop during the time. The Communist Party used to depend on Congress to seize power. The Party used to say that Congress was a cohort of the British colonial rulers; so boycott Congress. But, the Party propagated for unity of Congress and Muslim League. In essence, the Party did not carry essential work and follow appropriate line for seizure of political power. The Party failed to have any line for dealing with the local bourgeoisie.     

The Communist Party began following the political line proposed by B T Randive. It was “left” adventurism.

The Pakistan government targeted the communists. Maitra again had to go underground. He was arrested from a workers’ meeting near Rajbari town. Maitra was prohibited to enter the area. He and his comrades were working to organize a strike of the railway workers. He was sentenced to a 1-year prison term. But he had to pass eight years behind bar as he was interned with a detention order. He was released from jail in 1956.

In the jail-years, Maitra joined a series of hunger strikes: 24 days, 40 days and 60 days. One of the hunger strikers died during forced feeding and about four lost mental balance during these hunger strikes.

To Maitra, the line adopted by the (erstwhile) East Pakistan Communist Party (EPCP) after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was revisionist, anti-Marxist. The 20th Congress of the CPSU repudiated Stalin. According to Maitra, communist leader Ajoy Ghosh returned from Moscow. In his speech delivered to the EPCP congress Ghosh told: Class question is a much distant issue in (earstwhile) East Pakistan. It’s not class struggle, but the fight for democracy should be the only task of the communists in (erstwhile) E. Pak. No effort should be made by the communists to organize class organization prior to establishing democracy in (erstwhile) E Pak. Communists should work with the nationalists. Maitra claimed 80% of the delegates accepted the line. Only a few including Sukhendu Dastidar and Mohammad Toaha upheld the Marxist line of class struggle and class organization. Congress adopted the revisionist line.

The marriage of Maitra with Ms. Ava, who waited for long years including Maitra’s already passed 10 years of prison life, was officiated in presence of delegates to the Party congress. Abanee Laaheeree, Maitra’s maternal uncle, presided over the marriage ceremony. Ms. Ava had to disregard obstructions a backward-looking society creates. She accepted Maitra’s risk-prone, turmoil-packed, uncertain political life. Usually they had opportunity to live a married life for about a month after a period of 2-3 years. She had to bear all burdens of maintaining a family including raising their only son. Maitra felt he had the shelter of his party, but she had nothing, but to struggle for sustaining a family alone. She breathed to her last in 2009.

Arrest warrants were issued against communist leaders including Maitra with the imposition of martial law by General Ayub Khan in 1958 in Pakistan. A cash prize of Rupee [Pak. currency] 20,000 [that market value] was also announced to apprehend them. Maitra could pass 4 years in underground life. Then, in 1960, he was apprehended in Faridpur town and sentenced to 1-year imprisonment.

But he was not released after completion of the term. He was told that his trial would be initiated again in a martial law court, which sentenced people with imprisonment and whipping. Moreover, political prisoners were tortured prior to their trial. Maitra argued no person could be punished twice in two trials for the same case. This argument spared Maitra from whipping. But imprisonment was awarded by the martial law authority. He had to pass a jail life of four and half years. That was 1964.

The Great Debate – polemics between the CPSU and the Communist Party of China – began. Communist prisoners in jail were not free from the debate.

Maitra was interned in Korakdee for a year after getting released from jail. Anyone could visit him during the home internment despite a round-the-clock guard at the Korakdee-home.

Apprehending of communists was renewed in 1965 as the Indo-Pak war began. Maitra had to face the same – imprisonment. It continued upto the mass upsurge in 1969. Communists imprisoned were released as a wide and forceful movement of the workers and peasants roared through entire (erstwhile) E. Pak [now, independent Bangladesh] in 1969. Shantee [also spelled Shanti] Sen and Maitra were the last of the communist prisoners to come out of prison.

By 1966, the EPCP fractured into two parties – pro-Moscow and pro-Peking, as those were popularly identified; and by 1967, the pro-Peking party splintered into a number of groups. The Communist Party of East Pakistan (Marxist-Leninist) [popularly known as CPEP M-L] emerged as the main pro-Peking party. From inside the jail, he participated in the debates that preceded the fractures, but didn’t draw any conclusion on the debated issues. Maitra claimed most of the fractures in the party happened while he was passing jail terms, thus, he had no role in most of those fractures. Political documents of all debating parties reached inside jail. He told he would draw conclusion after talking to leadership of both the factions.

And, he talked to them after release from imprisonment. Then, Mitra decided to join the CPEP M-L, the party upholding Marxism-Leninism-Mao thought.

He and other communist leaders had to again move to underground life as General Yahya imposed martial law following the overthrow of Ayub in the 1969-mass upsurge.

Maitra felt the jail life cut contact with the masses of workers and peasants – a squeezing down of political activity. This isolation from people hindered proper assessment of political situation and taking decision.

His revolutionary political activities led him to underground life for about a quarter of a century.

Maitra opined: Struggle against party line is urgent whenever the line moves against Marxism as happened in Joshi Line and Ajoy Ghosh Line. The question is: how shall one implement a line if the line is not in accordance to Marxism? In that case, division turns just. However, in this country, utter intolerance prevailed. One turns antagonistic to other whenever it appears that opinions of the two aren’t the same; a consolidation is formed against the other, the other is expelled from party, and another party emerges if the other has a following – a result of not pusuing the method for struggle between two lines. Differences in opinions turn synonymous to antagonism; and petty-bourgeois practice emerges. Parties are yet to free them from this practice.

Maitra also opined: We are yet to build up a party of the proletariat. Otherwise, how petty-bourgeois ideas dominate the party? Our class origin is the petty-bourgeoisie. Our party was dominated by the petty-bourgeoisie. We were engulfed by the petty-bourgeois ideology; it was in all areas: ideas, program, leadership. Yet it persists. Communist party can’t be built up without fighting out the petty-bourgeois ideology. This is the lesson I gathered from life. We have seen youth with landless origin gets equipped with the petty-bourgeois ideas after joining communist party! It was hoped that members from the petty-bourgeoisie will imbue themselves with the proletarian ideology after joining the party. A study of the history of the party will lead us to find that the bourgeois ideology dominated more than party line formulated by Marxism.

To Maitra, 1971 was a turning point in the politics of Bangladesh. Communists were the foremost to render the call for national liberation. Revolutionary students of the country called for an independent East Bengal while Awami League was raising the demand for autonomy. During the period, communists popularized the slogan: Workers and peasants raise up in arms for an independent East Bengal. And, in reality, people overwhelmingly stood against the war imposed by Pakistan, and party workers and leaders actively took part in the armed struggle.

The CPEP M-L was going through a debate on Charu Majumdar’s line since the Naxalbari sparked. Maitra was asked by his party to discuss with Majumdar. While discussing with Majumdar in 1970 Maitra opposed the method of abandoning mass organizations and mass movements, and he told Majumdar he would convey Majumdar’s line to the communist leadership in East Bengal on whose behalf Maitra was having the discussion. Maitra brought to Majumdar’s notice the difference between realities of China and India. Maitra also met Jyoti Basu, a leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist) and once a chief minister of Paschim Banga, India, as CPEP M-L used to maintain a brotherly relationship with the CPI (M) [popularly CPM]. Basu requested Maitra not to abandon mass organizations. Maitra informed Basu that from then on CPEP M-L would no longer maintain relationship with CPM as CPEP M-L considers Majumdar’s line as revolutionary.  

Upon return home, Majumdar’s idea was conveyed by Maitra to the party leadership including Sukhendu Dastidar and Mohammad Toaha. Toaha told Maitra that Maitra’s position told to Majumdar was correct. Toaha also said abandoning mass organization was not a line. However, the leadership, on a majority basis, adopted Majumdar’s line on mass organization and mass movement while a minority part of the leadership including Toaha and Maitra had opposite view on the question. However, Toaha and Maitra went by the decision made by the majority. Mass organizations turned dead, and the Party lost contact with the masses. It was a blunder. At that time, arms were dominating the Party. The leadership had weakness in taking decisions. Maitra realized that theoretical struggle was at immature level in the entire history of the Party.    

Maitra’s observation on Majumdar was: Majumdar tried to mechanically implement Mao’s thought in Indian reality, was in a haste to organize revolution, and was suffering from petty-bourgeois impatience. However, Majumdar was correct while he said communists are to be revolutionaries, armed struggle is to be organized, base on the peasantry, struggle against revisionism.    

Maitra added with a tone of self-criticism: At most of the time, our Party copied others – either the CPSU or the CPC.

He was the acting secretary of CPEP M-L in 1974 after expulsion of Abdul Huq. On assuming the responsibility of secretary, Maitra began work emphasizing on Bangladesh-based strategy and tactics. But this line of Maitra and his comrades was defeated in 1975. Maitra, Idris Lohani and their Bangladesh-based line followers made the demand to circulate their political document in the Party. The demand was brushed out, and Maitra, Lohani and their line followers were expelled from the Party. The Party faced division, and a few of his young comrades had to risk their lives simply to assert: This is Bangladesh, not East Pakistan. Those were risky polemical days with possibilities of fatality for Maitra and his comrades in some areas of Bangladesh.  

In June 1976, Maitra, Lohani and their followers formed Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Bangladesh (M-L CPB). Then, it united with another Communist Party, and the new name was Communist League of Bangladesh (M-L). Saradindu Dastidar was elected secretary of the Party. A number of Communist Parties later joined the new Party; and Maitra was a member of the Polit Bureau/Secretariat of the Party. The Party faced a number of break aways and embraced a number of unity moves of a number of Communist Parties.

Maitra said with humble tone: Many youths of today negate the aged revolutionary leaders. To these youths, the old are redundant. It’s a wrong trend. The aged leaders are like teachers. They are negative teachers if they commit wrongs. That’s also a lesson to learn. One should learn from the errors committed. Their contributions and sacrifices are to be taken into consideration. These were the persons bringing us to this stage of revolutionary politics.

Maitra, always ready to learn, said: Our investigation about the Bangladesh society and situation is not enough. We should adequately know this land and human in this land. We failed to identify complexities our society inherited from the colonial and neo-colonial days. We tried to solve these in very simple ways, which were wrong. This originated from failure to properly understand situation of the country and the people.             

Age was pressing its load on the health of Maitra, who once walked miles defying scorching sun, torrential rain and bitting cold in rural Bangladesh, had to move through the Padda [also spelled Padma, the lower part of the Gangaa], flooded to its brims, in country boat in dark monsoon night. Maitra went to a retired life in 1992, although the Party he belonged to made him an honorary member of the Party. In the same year, he opted for a semi-underground life as state was not sure whether he was alive or not.

He handed over the property he inherited to the Party. After that transfer, he had no property, and no place of residence, but a few pieces of clothes, a pen, few note books, a pair of spectacle, and no effort to find comfort. He stayed at Mollaa Haaroon’s, [mainly spelled Molla Harun] one of his closest young comrades and a close associate during his struggle for Bangladesh-line, home while not making organizational tours to far-flung areas.

Maitra had to repeatedly visit the Dhaka Community Medical College Hospital, a trust-run medical institution in Dhaka focusing on the poor, due to his increasing health complications. As gratitude to this proletarian revolutionary, Dr. Kamruzzaman, one of the trustees of the hospital, arranged Maitra’s permanent stay in the hospital for his better treatment and closer management of deteriorating health, which lessened Maitra’s sufferings. The physician told Maitra: “You are the last warrior from the days of the struggle against the colonial British rulers. It’s our duty to take care of you. Where shall you stay in Dhaka with this health condition? Stay here. At least regular treatment could be ensured.”

With critical health condition, Satya Maitra’s last days, about two years, passed in this hospital. To sisters, brothers and young physicians of the medical college hospital, the revolutionary traversing a long path since last century was daadoo, grand pa. They regularly visited the modest old man and listened stories of his fiery days of struggle. Sometimes, they tried to learn about the ideology he upheld. Many patients and their accompanying relatives regularly visited his hospital room to gossip with Maitra, always welcoming commoners with his smile. Political leaders and activists from wider spectrum of Left politics regularly visited Satya Maitra to share ideas and experiences, and to seek suggestions. To some of them, he was Momin vaai [elder brother], the name he used during his underground days. To the poor peasantry in numerous villages, he was Hamid vaai, a person with ordinary posture. Satya Maitra used to go through a number of dailies, weeklies, periodicals and political literature. He put marks and notes on parts of those he considered important and handed over those to the leader/activist concerned with the issue. As an avid reader he tirelessly read books ranging from Marx to Tagore to modern poetry and novelettes. These were part of his daily life in hospital. His bedside bore those evidences. He kept his eyes opened to political developments at home and at world stage. This active mental work continued upto the days preceeding his last days.

Satya Maitra’s body has been donated to the Dhaka Medical College, a public institution, following last tributes by his comrades at the Central Shaheed Minar in the Dhaka University area on April 11, 2018. As blazing sun drenched red flags flitted in the April-noon, the revolutionary’s last journey came to a solemn terminal while his comrades renewed their vow to continue struggle of the exploited and the oppressed, and rendered The Internationale:  
Stand up, damned of the Earth
Stand up, prisoners of starvation.

Note: This is thankfully acknowledged that the piece is prepared mostly on the basis of Satya Ranjan Maitra’s interview published in Shaptahik, a Baanglaa weekly from Dhaka, in its vol. 10, issue 43. The interview was conducted by Anis Raihan. Thanks to Anis. It has been claimed that this was Maitra’s first formal interview with press.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.   

Apr 14, 2018


Farooque Chowdhury [email protected]

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