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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 49, New Delhi, November 21, 2020

In Remembrance: Ajit Roy — A forgotten Communist Activist and Intellectual (A birth Centenary Tribute) | Sobhanlal Datta Gupta

Saturday 21 November 2020


by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta *

Ajit Roy passed away on 3 June, 2011. A month later, on 11 July 2011 Kolkata witnessed a remarkable memorial meeting, packed to capacity, which was attended by a number of prominent Left leaders and intellectuals of the day. On 14 November 2020 Roy stepped into the centenary year of his birth. No initiative has as yet been taken by the mainstream Left to observe this event. The Bengal Left, tragically, seems to be completely oblivious of the indelible presence of this man in Bengal’s communist movement since the 1940s.

Personally speaking, my association with Ajit Roy developed in the mid-1980s in rather fortuitous circumstances. I had just joined Calcutta University as a faculty member in Political Science and I discovered that Nandini, Roy’s daughter, happened to be my student. It is through her that I came in contact with her father, although we were familiar with his writings on Indian economy, politics, international issues and, of course, Marxism. This much also we knew that he had been a controversial figure in Bengal’s communist politics, that he harboured sharp differences with the Party on many issues, that he was fiercely independent in airing his views and that he did not join either the CPI or the CPI(M), when the Communist Party of India split in 1964. When I first met him, the image of him that I had secretly drawn up in my mind was that of a hard-liner. Mikhail Gorbachev had just assumed power in the Soviet Union and the issue of destalinization had resurfaced. Many of us were greatly enthused by these new developments in the Soviet bloc. At the same time the ambivalent position of the central leadership of the CPI and CPI(M) on this issue generated a sense of confusion. I had a feeling that Ajit Roy would be sharply contemptuous of these new developments in the USSR. But as my contacts with him grew closer, I realized that he was an inflexible Communist but a non-conformist Marxist with an open mind, free from the trappings of dogmatism. This enabled me to share many of his ideas on how to reshape Marxism so much so that he got me involved in some of his remarkable projects about which I will say a few words later in this essay.

Roy hailed from Dhaka, East Bengal and had his schooling and higher education initially in Dhaka and later in Calcutta. While he was professionally trained in Economics, he had a passion for photography as well as literature. He had a facile pen, which explains the huge stock of his writings. From his “Reminiscent Notes”, a fascinatingly candid autobiographical essay, in Ajit Roy : An Enduring Marxist (Praxis : Bangalore, n.d.), published shortly after his death, it is evident that he was a precocious child, possessing a sharply critical mind. He joined the underground CPI as an activist and became a party member of the Dhaka district committee in 1943 as whole timer. Roy initially worked as a member of the editorial staff of Janayuddha (People’s War) and then in 1946 joined Swadhinata, CPI’s daily, being published from Calcutta, as reporter, where he worked under the tutelage of the legendary leader Somnath Lahiri. Probably because of his training in Economics, he was a keen observer of the interface of economics and politics in the fast changing scenario of the post-War world but on this issue he developed sharp differences with Lahiri and the Party line. Eventually he left Swadhinata and joined the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), P.C. Mahalanobis being instrumental in his recruitment, deeply impressed as he was by his economic analysis. But that stint too was short-lived, as he did not see eye to eye with Mahalanobis on a number of questions relating to planning. Although he frequently changed profession, a prolific writer as he was, he earned his living mainly through writings, Economic and Political Weekly bearing evidences of some of his remarkable contributions. He thereby chose a hard life of struggle, uncertainty and risk being his constant companion.

His association with the CPI involved his work with some of the front-ranking leaders of the Bengal CPI, namely, Bhowani Sen, Somnath Lahiri, Ramen Banerjee, Indrajit Gupta, Saroj Mukherjee, Panchugopal Bhaduri, Nripen Chakravarty, Gholam Quddus, Jyoti Basu and many others, apart from his close contact with P.C. Joshi, Nikhil Chakravarty, Bhupesh Gupta and other leading lights of the CPI leadership at the all-India level. The unique element that characterized Roy was his courage to call a spade a spade relating to Party matters, which were unacceptable to him, be it the Party line or the prevailing Party culture. This does not suggest that he harboured an anarchist outlook, since as long as he remained a card-holding member of the CPI, he launched his critiques from within the Party, without violating Party discipline. His was a voice of dissent, but always guided by the spirit of Marxism, which was his abiding concern till the last days of his life. Thus, one of his critiques was his strong reservations against the line adopted by the CPI in its Second Congress in 1948. The new line of the CPI, represented in its Programme of 1951 and the policy of “parliamentarism” , also irked him, because for quite a long time he was firmly of opinion that for the Communists to share political power in a bourgeois democratic set up was quite futile. Interestingly, in 1949 he was expelled from the Party , however, not on political but absolutely flimsy grounds relating to his personal habits. He, however, did not accept this expulsion lying down and carried on a relentless inner-party struggle, leading shortly to his readmission in the Party and his election to the Calcutta District Committee in1956. But he continued his crusade against many aspects of Party policy till 1964, when the Party split and when he, along with Gopal Acaharya, Biren Roy and Subodh Das Gupta, preferred not to join either the CPI or CPI (M). Roy and his colleagues could never accept the split and the theoretical reason underlying his decision not to join either of the two Parties after 1964 was his argument that the two main wings of the undivided CPI, representing the National Front and the Democratic Front [later crystallizing as CPI and CPI(M)], the former sympathizing with Jawaharlal Nehru’s strategy of welfarism and the latter critiquing it as a manoeuvre of the Indian bourgeoisie, were equally wrong, Roy himself advocating a far-Left position. The Roy group, in the post-1964 scenario, formed the Communist Unity Committee (CUC), which functioned for two years and for a short period brought out its mouthpiece, Pratidin, which drew cheers from many.

As long as he was in the CPI, he lived with the conviction that the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) and the British Communist Party (CPGB) would appreciate his dissenting stand in the Party. In 1949 he managed to send a brief note on his critique of the Second Congress to Moscow through the Pravda correspondent in New Delhi, followed by a trip to Delhi again in November 1949, when he personally handed over a document “A Critique of CPI’s Theses Leninism and Revisionism” to the same Pravda correspondent so that it reached the CPSU leadership. This further explains his adventurous trip, funded by Snehanshu Acharya and Bulbul Chowdhury, a famous dancer of the day, to the CPGB headquarter in London in May, 1950, where he met Rajani Palme Dutt (RPD) in order to explain his disagreement on the 1948 line of the CPI, advocated by B.T. Ranadive. The outcome of this visit was interesting. He was coldshouldered by RPD, because he was not prepared to give hearing to an “expelled” member of the CPI. But Roy, undaunted as he was, wrote to the leadership of the CPGB, particularly criticizing Palme Dutt’s conduct. Understandably, Roy received no acknowledgement from Harry Pollitt, the then General Secretary of the CPGB. Ironically, the CPGB soon changed its stand, following the change in the Cominform line, which was not substantially different from the position of Roy. In fact, the so-called expulsion order was withdrawn thereafter, leading to Roy’s readmission in the Party.

Roy’s position, however, gradually underwent shifts, as the domestic and international situation began to change, following the Party split in 1964. No longer in the Party, since 1967 he started bringing out The Marxist Review from Calcutta, which continued till 1988, reappearing under the title Occasional Letters since then, but irregularly, as age had started taking its toll on him. A good number of documents written by Ajit Roy in the pre- and post-1964 period are to be found in the files of this periodical.

As a result of his association with the ISI he developed fruitful contacts with a good number of Marxist luminaries of the day, i.e., Ashok Rudra, Charles Bettelheim, Paul Baran and Oskar Lange. As an activist-scholar he developed international contacts across the world, resulting in his participation in numerous conferences and seminars, climaxed by his becoming a judge of the 70-member panel of the Permanent People’s Tribunal, constituted by the Lelio Basso International Foundation for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples (Rome), formed in 1979 at Bologna in Italy. It is around this time that his work in India also assumed a new dimension when he forged links with a number of action groups involving the plight of the fishermen and men and women working in the informal sector.

The post-1964 phase of Roy’s Marxism, as stated earlier, witnessed subtle shifts. Because of his training as an economist, in the pre-1964 period he was guided by the understanding that economic factors were decisive in the understanding of politics and his early writings bear heavy imprint of this position. But a non-conformist yet extremely well-read Marxist as he was, he increasingly became interested in the notion of politics as an autonomous force and the issue of superstructure, relating to ideology, culture and consciousness, in the analysis of which he drew his intellectual resources heavily from Antonio Gramsci, the first major English version of whose writings appeared in 1971. Although Roy has not stated it very clearly, this “Gramscian turn” in his thought is strongly evident in his later writings. To put it more succinctly, a careful reader of Roy’s numerous books and articles cannot miss this shift from base (focus on economics) to superstructure (focus on culture, ideology and consciousness). There are at least two evidences which need to be stated. First, on the question of Emergency, which was declared in 1975, he warned that it would be wrong to equate it with fascism, although it was definitely an exercise in authoritarianism and a threat to democracy, because, ironically, the real fascist forces, namely, the Jan Sangh and the RSS, were now raising their heads in the name of fighting the Emergency. Calling Indira Gandhi fascist would mean shielding the real fascists, he pointed out. How relevant and insightful this observation appears in today’s India ! Second, on the issue of Gorbachev’s reforms, he was deeply enthused by his programme, because it extended the frontiers of democracy and humanism. Over the years as he gradually emerged as a fierce critic of Stalinism, he considered Gorbachev’s programme as an alternative to the Stalinist model of socialism, opening new frontiers. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he did not hold Gorbachev responsible for it, but did not spare Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev, as I read Roy’s mind, was a victim of circumstances which had been nurtured by Stalinism the structure of which he tried to break through glasnost and perestroika.

I had the opportunity of coming in close contact with Ajit Roy in the Gramscian phase of his intellectual life. As we shared the Gramscian vision, he involved me in his project of communicating the Gramscian understanding of transforming the unorganized, subaltern masses in the spirit of counter hegemony by making them aware of the need for cultivating an alternative consciousness and thus drawing then away from the trappings of common sense. Consequently, through Roy, I established contacts with a number of action groups in Tamil Nadu, Karnakata, Kerala and Jharkhand, which gave me the rare opportunity of sharing my ideas on Gramsci with an altogether new category of people.

In the closing years of his life I maintained contact with him over phone, as my other preoccupations imposed restrictions on my visit to his Salt Lake residence. After his death in 2011 in the memorial meeting organized in Kolkata we did not mourn him, we celebrated his life, thought and activities. Let the birth centenary of Ajit Roy break new grounds in the understanding of an alternative Marxism the need for which he used to underline in his conversations with me and let this idea act as an intellectual fuel for the rejuvenation of the Left in India today . That would be the finest tribute to Roy, a forgotten Communist of the yesteryears.

(* The author is Former Surendra Nath Banerjee Professor of Political Science, Calcutta University)

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