I had met Somnath Chatterjee a long time ago. My grandfather, who was one of the founders of CPIM in Birbhum district and a freedom fighter who served time in the Andamans, had been admitted to hospital with serious complications and Somnath Chatterjee, who represented Bolpur in Birbhum district, had come to pay his respects. He had no posse or hangers-on around, even though he was a VIP and the CPIM’s main man in Delhi, and he carried lightly his importance.
Somnath Chatterjee, who passed away recently, was an old world politician in the true sense of the term. While I am sure he made compromises, as any politician does, and anyone who claims they dont is Kejriwalling, he was also one who stood by principles, and nowhere was this more heroically evident than his stance during the Indo-US nuclear deal. which led to his expulsion and subsequent humiliation by the brutish partisan stooges who call the shots in the CPM today, the Karats and the Yechurys. If there was any problem with Somnath Chatterjee was that he was too patrician, too gentle, and his brand of old-world oratory could be disrupted, as it was once, by a then-unknown rabble-rouser, who aided by a massive sympathy wave and her own ability to speak the tongue of the masses, handed Somnath Chatterjee his only defeat in a long career.
One Mamata Banerjee.
And with that I suppose goes smaller as it trends towards extinction. The old-world Bengali intellectual Marxist. Unlike many of their millennial equivalents, they were consistent in their world views, if they considered religion to be the opium of the masses, they applied it to all, and not just to a few, they called out bigotry in every religion, with of course the exception of Marxism, which they never realized was a religion in itself. They engaged their opponents in debate, they were personally honest and upright, bar the odd study tour to New York or seminar at Taj Bengal on poverty or the free drinkie at the US Embassy before the anti-imperialism rally at the Brigade Parade grounds. And they were all universally well-read and erudite and intellectually curious. Agree with them or not, and I never did, they did not sway with the breeze, their beliefs and their principles were non-negotiable. Many of them actually became disillusioned over the years with the party that carried Communist in its title, of the self-serving faux-Communist that Jyoti Basu morphed into, lightweights with inordinate influence like Anil Biswas, and the Yechuries and Karats who took over the party, mediocre soldiers-of-fortune out for opportunities, subsisting like on the scraps that the Congress threw them and then beating hard with their beaks in the hope for more.
Yet they carried on, as Somnath Chatterjee did, maintaining fealty to a set of personal principles their party had moved away from.
You may find these fiery old boys still, black framed spectacles with glasses like the bottom of a bottle, reed thin emaciated, sitting on broken wooden chairs framed by dusty bookshelves with ancient tomes, yellow with age, phantom soldiers of a battle that has been lost, guarding the burning embers of an ideological castle that history has razed to the ground, steadfastly refusing to accept the inevitable.
You will find them. But not for long.
Because most of them, the opportunists and the realists, have found their peace with Mamata Banerjee, while the ideologically ossified remain like Somnath Chatterjee, in perpetual exile, Communists without a party, bitter to the point that Somnath Chatterjee’s family rejected the CPIM’s offer to give him a party farewell.
Marxism will survive, under a new name, under new management and with some aggressive mutations, morphed into the slanted, discriminate and strategic “progressiveness” (please note the inverted commas) one that appropriates Marxist vocabulary to wage a partisan war against certain designated groups and here the contrast between them and classical Marxists who were equal opportunities offenders is the most stark. And yet their current followers hesitate, with some exceptions, to self-declare as Marxists perhaps in order to spare themselves of having to defend the calumny of a cultural revolution or the killing fields of Cambodia or the economic pillaging of Bengal.
The “progressives” (please not the inverted commas) will survive, and flourish, enabled by their overwhelming control of platforms of mass reach: print and television and higher education, and their convenient disavowal of any responsibility for the radiation fallout of every Marxist implementation.
Just some of the old guard will be here no more. And I personally will miss them. The people. Not so much their ideals.