Remembering Suniti Ghosh

May 22, 2014

by Sumanta Banerjee

My personal association with Suniti Babu spans a period that covers more than half a century. It goes back to 1958 – when I joined Barasat Government College (a few kilometers away from Kolkata) as a junior lecturer, and found him as a senior colleague. I had heard of him earlier from my elder comrades in the Communist movement . He was known to have taken part in the famous Tebhaga movement in north Bengal in 1946-47.

There was another association also that dated back to the early 1950s. In 1952, in the Taltala area of central Calcutta, a few enterprising Communists (including the local corporation councilor Dhiren Dhar) set up the Institute of Languages – which organized free teaching classes – for those interested in learning both European languages and other languages like Urdu, Farsi and Hindi. Given the political orientation of the organizers, the Russian language course probably gained more popularity. The Russian teacher of the course was Tatiana Saha – a Russian married to a Bengali physicist Dr. Akshoy Saha, whom she had met in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union where he went to help the new revolutionary society. They then both decided to come back to India and settle down in Calcutta. Anyway, Tatiana Saha’s classes in Taltala in 1952 drew a lot of people – mainly middle class Bengalis. Among them was my mother, Nalini Banerjee, who at an elderly age was inspired by her eldest son Subrata (who was a Communist Party member) and his devotion to the Soviet experiment, and she decided to learn Russian to read the literature in the original . One of her class-mates was Suniti Ghosh – who was just one year older than my brother Subrata – and my mother grew very affectionate towards him.

When Suniti Babu joined Barasat College, he was no longer active in Communist politics. He had left the then united CPI in 1956, as he refused to accept Khrushchov’s denunciation of Stalin, and what he regarded as a `revisionist thesis’ that the Soviet leader propounded at the 20th Congress of the CPSU. He protested against its adoption by the Palghat Congress of the CPI in 1956, and resigned from the party. But when I joined Barasat College, I was still a member of the then undivided CPI – and its teachers’ front WBCUTA – West Bengal College and Univesity Teachers’ Association. In our staff room in Barasat College, we used to share a lot of time discussing contemporary politics. Although not politically active, he still seemed to retain the old militant streak of the Communist movement. I remember, when Shambhu Mitra (of Bohurupee) staged Tagore’s `Char Adhyay,’ we in Calcutta were all praise for his and Tripti Mitra’s acting. But Suniti Babu struck a rebellious note. He told me that by staging a play which questioned the militancy of the nationalist revolutionaries of the 1930s, Shambhu Mitra was sowing the seeds of cynicism about radical ideas among the audience of the present times. I did not agree with him. But I admired the courage and personal integrity that he displayed soon after this.

In those days, we were appointed in government colleges on a probationary basis for a fixed period, during which the police examined the past record of the probationers, and on the basis of their report the government decided to reject them, or confirm them as permanent. In Suniti Babu’s case, the police report revealed his past association with the Communist party and the Tebhaga movement – an association officially deemed unacceptable by the then Congress government. But because of Suniti Babu’s popularity as a teacher, the official in charge of higher education, who wanted to confirm his appointment – in an informal way – suggested that he could submit a written statement saying that he had rejected his Communist past and had nothing to do with the Communist movement any more. Suniti Babu refused to do so, saying that although he was no longer politically active, he was not willing to reject his Communist past. Soon after that, Suniti Babu left Barasat College, and after sometime, joined Vidyasagar College – a private college in Calcutta that was thankfully free from police surveillance. At around the same time – 1958-59 – the police traced my record as a CPI member. Knowing well in advance that their report would ultimately lead to my dismissal, I resigned from Barasat College, and was lucky soon after to get a lecturer’s post in Surendranath College.

I lost touch with Suniti Babu after leaving Calcutta in 1967, when I was transferred to the New Delhi office of the Statesman newspaper with which I was working in those days. But I came to know that Suniti Ghosh had joined the CPI(Marxist) in 1964 for a brief period (during which he wrote for its organ People’s Democracy). He however left that party also, in 1965, following his disagreement with its leaders. After the Naxalbari uprising and the establishment of the West Bengal State Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries in 1967, Suniti Babu joined the movement, and wrote articles for its Bengali mouthpiece Deshabrati, before taking over as the editor of its English organ Liberation. He was to record later his association – as well as his differences – with the leadership of the Naxalite movement in his book Naxalbari, Before and After: Reminiscences and Appraisal (brought out by New Age Publishers in 2009).

I heard about Suniti Babu again, during my incarceration in the Intelligence Bureau cell at Lord Sinha Road in Calcutta some time in 1973. One day, there was a lot of excitement among the warders of our cell. They were all agog, awaiting the arrival of a `Naxal leader’ called Suniti Ghosh, who was about to be arrested by the police ! So were we – the `Naxal’ prisoners . But the police claim turned out to be a damp squib. Suniti Ghosh managed to escape the police dragnet.

It was only after the end of the Emergency in 1977, that I had a chance to meet Suniti Babu again. After my release from jail on bail, I returned to Delhi. I was trying to trace my old political comrades, when one day a young friend of mine approached me and said that Suniti Babu was in Delhi, and wanted to meet me. But he was still in a semi-underground state, since the newly installed Janata government was yet to withdraw charges against us. So, it was arranged that he would be escorted by this friend to the house where I was staying then. I happened to be staying with my elder brother Subrata in Jangpura, where my mother was also living. When Suniti Babu arrived, my mother was the first to greet him. We then went back to a past – exchanging memories beginning from the 1950s.

Once freed from state persecution, Suniti Ghosh returned to his area of interest – an academic world, where he decided to commit himself to a Leftist radical political position to analyze Indian history and society. He came out with his first volume – India and The Raj 1919-1947 – in 1989. I remember watching him meticulously poring over historical documents in the National Library of Calcutta, during his research for writing the book – some time in the mid 1980s, when I also used to visit National Library in connection with a research project of mine. After that he wrote a number of books on Indian economy. But more importantly, in 1992 he brought out two volumes of selected articles from the old CPI(M-L) mouthpiece Liberation, entitled The Historic Turning Point: A Liberation Anthology.

We kept in touch with each other. My last meeting with him at his Raja Rajkrishna Street flat in Calcutta, was some time before he fell ill and shifted to his daughter’s home in Asansol where he died on May 12, 2014.

I shall always remember and respect Suniti Ghosh as a Communist who remained uncompromising in following his principles, honest in pursuing his political beliefs, and courageous in practicing what he believed in. Those sterling qualities that marked his character – and which should characterize every Communist intellectual – are fast disappearing from the political milieu of the Left in India.

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