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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 29, July 9, 2011

Tribute to Chaturanan Mishra

Sunday 10 July 2011

One of the tallest leaders of the Communist Party in Bihar, Chaturanan Mishra, who was the Union Agriculture Minister in the governments of both H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral in 1996-98, passed away at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi around noon on July 2, 2011. A former President of the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), he was ailing for quite sometime but the end came rather suddenly. He was admitted to the AIIMS the previous day and put on a ventilator; however, he could not be revived. He is survived by his wife, four daughters and a son, besides several grandchildren.

His last rites were performed at the Capital’s Nigambodh Ghat before a large crowd of relatives, friends, comrades. The body was kept for sometime at the CPI headquarters, Ajoy Bhavan, before the final journey to the crematorium.
Born on April 7, 1925 at Nahar village of Madhubani district, Chaturanan Mishra plunged into the vortex of the freedom struggle in his student days and was imprisoned twice for participating in that struggle. He joined the ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942 and was jailed for that reason; it was then that he sustained serious injuries in Derbhanga jail. Like his colleague and comrade-in-arms, Bhogendra Jha, former MP and the indisputable mass leader of Madhubani, he too came into the communist movement from the Congress.

The CPI was founded in Bihar by such stalwarts as Rahul Sankrityayan, B.B. Mishra, Sunil Mukherjee, Ratan Ray, Shyamal Kumar Jha. In course of time it was enriched by the entry into the party of Yogendra Sharma, Ali Ashraf, Jagannath Sarkar, Indradeep Sinha, Chandrasekhar Singh from the Congress Socialist Party; and Karyanand Sharma, Bhogendra Jha and Chaturanan Mishra from the Congress. With Mishraji’s demise (Jagannath Sarkar breathed his last in April 2011), almost all the Communist leaders of yester-years have departed. (Those from that generation who are still alive include historian Dr R.S. Sharma and
CPI-M leader Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi; even UCPI leader Krishna Chandra Choudhury is no more.)

In 1944 he migrated to south Bihar (now Jharkhand) with the party deputing him for trade union work there. As he narrates in the following interview, “I spent the next twentyfive years in Giridih and Hazaribagh struggling for the cause of mine labourers and highlighting pertinent social issues.” He also says: “It was a great learning experience and my longest journey so far—in socio-cultural terms; it was a sort of metamorphosis for me.” His popularity among the tribals and workers there was manifest in his being elected from the Giridih constituency thrice—in 1969, 1972 and 1979. He also served as the deputy leader and leader of the CPI group in the House and in that capacity became Leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Assembly as well.

He was twice elected to the Rajya Sabha from Bihar—in 1984 and 1990. In 1996 he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Madhubani, which at one time was called ‘little Moscow’ (Bhogendra Jha represented that constituency in the Lok Sabha for several terms). Thereafter he became the Union Agriculture Minister when the CPI, unlike the CPI-M, decided to join the Deve Gowda Government at the Centre (the other CPI Minister in Deve Gowda’s Cabinet was Indrajit Gupta who was entrusted with the Home portfolio).

After S.A. Dange relinquished the top post of the AITUC, Mishraji became the organisation’s President from 1983 to 1989. In that capacity he tried his level best to ensure the AITUC’s merger with the HMS (and in that he was fully supported by Indrajit Gupta, the legendary trade union leader of the country) but that was not to be due to ‘internal hindrances’ as he mentions in the interview. (Those hindrances came mainly from the pro-CPI-M section within the AITUC leadership for fear of the negative reaction from the CPI-M’s trade union wing, the CITU, which is rooted in sectarianism.) In contrast Mishraji was far more open and while pleading for Left and communist unity never took a sectarian position; like erstwhile CPI General Secretary Indrajit Gupta, he always kept the broad national picture in view. That is why he had no hesitation in acknowledging, as he does in the following interview, that “today civil rights activists like Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy etc. are raising their voice on issues that should be our concern”. He thought out of the box and wrote freely bringing into focus the national problems which, he was convinced, should be tackled by evolving a national perspective and outlook.

In 1996-98, the Communists in the Union Government played an outstanding role that is seldom recognised. While Indrajit Gupta emerged as the “best Home Minister this country has ever had”, an observation made by former PM I.K. Gujral, Mishraji as the Union Agriculture Minister pioneered such schemes as crop insurance, Kisan Credit Card and set up institutions like the Krishi Vigyan Kendra “to lift the status of agriculture”, as he describes in the following interview. But while doing so he was never oblivious of the necessity of people’s struggles to implement the schemes and projects meant for the toiling populace.
Apart from being a tireless political worker, he was endowed with a clear vision of the future. He wrote extensively not just in party journals but in this weekly too. In fact he was a prolific writer and several of his articles appeared in Mainstream influencing the large band of its readers including such a personality as Justice Sukumaran who openly wrote from Thiruvananthapuram about this, warmly complimenting Mishraji that was duly conveyed to him.

Like Jagannath Sarkar, Yogendra Sharma, Indradeep Sinha, Bhogendra Jha, he had forged close relations with N.C., and had intimate ties with the Mainstream family. While offering our sincere homage to his abiding memory we are reproducing in the following pages the interview taken by Atul Kumar Thakur (that appeared in this journal last February) and two of his articles (which were published in Mainstream in 2010). S.C.

Comrade in Conversation

CPI LEADER CHATURANAN MISHRA SPEAKS TO ATUL KUMAR THAKUR

It’s indeed a privilege for me to interact with someone who is known for all the good reasons, despite remaining in politics for almost seven decades. Would you like to start here with your early life?

CM: I was born in 1925 in village Nahar, then a part of the old Darbhanga district [since 1973 it is in Madhubani] in a modest Maithil family. After my primary education, I had to move to the G.M.S.S. School [Madhubani], as near my village there was no high school, for further education. So, I left home to continue further education.

There must have been intense pressure on your time amidst the clamour for Indian independence from the oppressive British imperialism. How did you align yourself in those difficult times?

CM: I came to Madhubani in the early forties and in a short span of time was in deep touch with the communist ideology due to the prevalence of a sound progressive environment created by young, vocal revolutionaries like Bhogendra Jha [who later became a stalwart in the Communist Party] and others like Srimohan Jha, Tej Narayan Jha etc. This Communist group was formed by Comrade Bhogendra Jha secretly and started manoeuvring against the war.

This radical opposition eventually became powerful and there was a plan to hoist the Indian tricolour flag in place of the imperialist Union Jack on Madhubani Civil Court. We successfully did it and won accolades from the common masses and even to an extant from nationalist government servants as well. We were restless with the swift developments in 1940; I was convicted for two years—spent ten months and two months for two different terms for that charge of hoisting the national flag. Comrade Bhogendra Jha was arrested in Darbhanga; besides almost all our comrades were arrested, though our party’s [CPI’s] stand to remain passive during the critical ‘Quit India’ Movement restrained us from carrying forward the struggle after those early initiatives. In my understanding, that was a blunder which handicapped us in building a strong mass base on a pan-India basis. Though later with many good work in the service of the people Communists earned mass respect, that blunder continued to haunt us for a long span of time.

What big changes have taken place in your life after that revolutionary quest and how was the young communist brigade placed in the psyche of the common people?

CM: As our efforts were unprecedented in terms of social representation, we received warm response from across all castes and religions alike. That harmony was our true victory at that time; besides at the personal level too it was remarkable on some counts for me. Before that incident, I was living with my lawyer cousin but his reservation against my hoisting the Indian flag on his house and particularly at the court forced me to uphold my self-respect and shift to Azad hostel. After that I never visited him until my acquittal from jail when he expressed remorse and behaved in a placatory manner for his wrong behaviour in the past; his opinion and belief had undergone a change in view of the nationalistic fervour.

Further in 1944, Comrade Chandrasekhar Singh came to Madhubani; Bhogendra Jha suggested my name to him for the trade union movement in south Bihar [now Jharkhand]. My friend Ramlakhan Panjiar and other comrades helped me to migrate. I kept my family in the dark and cited other reasons to go off for two months. Finally through the material and moral support of fellow comrades, I was able to carry out the assignment. It was a great learning experience and my longest journey so far—in socio-cultural terms; it was a sort of metamorphosis for me.

The impact of such a change could be sensed by those who are familiar with the cultural intricacies of Mithila and its sharp differences in the socio-cultural sphere with the regions of then South Bihar. How did you adapt to the changed circumstances at different levels?

CM: My oratorical ability and critical under-standing had been noticed by the senior comrades for my new assignment in the All India Trade Union Congress [AITUC]. It became my life thereafter. I spent the next twentyfive years in Giridih and Hazaribagh struggling for the cause of mine labourers and highlighting pertinent local issues. The challenges were multiple and came from many sides—besides miners, government and local feudals; we also had to cope with our contradictory relationships with the Socialist group which accentuated even further after the attainment of Indian independence.

Initially, it was very tough to convince the local illiterate tribals about their plights. So, imparting a sense among them for building the union took time, though it did succeed finally. It indeed worked out and brought about positive changes in their working conditions by securing the rights which were hitherto denied to them by their exploitative employers. It also earned great respect for the Communist Party and imbued a new consciousness among the masses. I have been elected thrice from the Giridih constituency to the Bihar legislature [in 1969, 1972 and 1979]; I also served as deputy leader and leader of the CPI in the House.
Post-independence, the dynamics of Indian politics a took a new direction, essentially translating into reality the idea of a modern India. How do you rate your party’s responses towards those changes?

CM: National independence was a landmark for us and it was received positively though with a heavy heart after losing lakhs of lives, millions displaced and an unfortunate permanent line drawn up on our map with the creation of Pakistan. Anyhow many issues, that led to the CPI’s concept of the independence being false, started diminishing after the introduction of first two Five Year Plans. Especially progressive was the Second Five Year Plan, architectured by Prashanta Chandra Mahalanobis, and it had a huge impact on the Communist Party and paved the way for enabling it to meet the new challenges. And appropriately, even if belatedly, we anticipated the new challenges and the good work carried out by the PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, to cope with them. His stand on strong public sector undertakings and an independent foreign policy were based on a pragmatic approach in those circumstances, Non-alignment was a great tool for an emerging nation like India. I have written in detail about the various facades of Indian foreign policy in my book Recast Indian Policy.

We kept doing good work that retrieved our acceptance among the masses. In 1957 the first Communist and non-Congress government was formed under the visionary leadership of E.M.S. Namboodripad; however, Nehru’s growing impatience with the communist ideology led to its ouster in 1959. Another blunder was waiting for us, in 1962; China attacked us—the CPI opposed the move but a section of the party stood in favour of China’s stand and they split as the CPI-Marxist. From that time, unification of the Communist Parties has remained a pipe- dream so far; though in legislative affairs we work unitedly, our separate statutory entity is a matter of grave concern. I have been raising my voice from time to time for the unification of the communist movement and trade unions. Despite hard efforts during my stint as the President, AITUC [1983-89], I couldn’t succeed in ensuring its merger with the Hind Mazdoor Sabha [HMS]; due to internal hindrances, the overall merger of the Left led trade union movement remained a pipe-dream. I attribute this division to our failure in emerging as a truly national party; today civil rights activists like Medha Patekar, Arundhati Roy etc. are raising their voice on issues that should be our concern.

How did things change during the Indira Gandhi regime as she had a pro-USSR inclination despite remaining in the Non-Aligned Movement. Please share some insights about the CPI’s policy in those times?

CM: Cheating us in the PL-480 deal and the unruly behaviour of US President Nixon took Indo-US relations to an unprecedented low. In strategic terms too, the USA had been pushing Pakistan against Indian interests in Kashmir. Besides that, China’s betrayal forced India to reorient its foreign policy. During the 1960s, India’s ties with the USSR grew to amazing heights and almost became the hall-mark of our foreign policy at that time; even now, despite a radical orientation towards the market economy in both the countries, the ties are intact and growing. The CPI shared great understanding with the Congress during Indira Gandhi’s stint as the PM and in fact did fairly well in a major State like Bihar—in that phase, north Bihar, especially Madhubani, used to be known as little Moscow. Besides, we also strengthened our base in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. This deal with the Congress naturally delinked us from the confused socialist manoeuvrings, like the JP movement. Though we morally opposed the Emergency but sensing the urgency of law and order restoration, the CPI did support the Congress—it cost us badly in the following elections.

The collapse of the USSR was a big blow for all alternative thinkers across the world. As an active Communist leader and a parliamentarian, what struck you most in the unravelling of the Soviet Union from the Indian standpoint?

CM: I think the collapse of the USSR happened through falling democratic culture within the machinery—of course, new economic policies like “glasnost” and “perestroika” hastened that unfortunate process. India, being the closest strategic and trade partner, suffered the most; it led to reorienting our strategic and trade policies in an abrupt manner. The end of the socialist bloc and failure to form such an alternative even after two decades has made the world an open amphitheatre of the USA’s neo-imperialism. Such tendencies are alarming and needed firm opposition from capable countries like India and China. On the World Federation of Trade Unions [WFTU] it impacted very adversely—in the changed circumstances, I tried to align our trade unions with the ICFTU. Though it was US dominated, I thought it would help us to get at least some chance of dwelling with labour issues on the international platform. Finally this did not materialise. Overall it dealt a blow to not only the Indian communist movement but to all such movements across the world.

You have served for fourteen years as a parliamentarian, and you also rose to become the Union Agriculture Minister in the United Front Government in 1996. Will you elucidate on some main points of your long stint?

CM: In1984, my party, the CPI, decided to nominate me to the Upper House of Parliament as I had served in trade unions for decades. In 1990, I received another chance to remain in Upper House. After that, I successfully contested the Lok Sabha election from the Madhubani constituency and became the Union Minister for Agriculture in the United Front Government. From my own experience I could say that we shouldn’t have declined to participate in the government—if Jyoti Basu could have served as the Prime Minister in 1996, things would have been different today. It was nothing short of a blunder, we lost a big chance to convey and demonstrate politically our ability and compe-tence on a larger platform. We again replicated a similar mistake by not participating in the UPA-I Government; subsequently we withdrew our support to UPA-I on the civil nuclear deal. What we are doing today is to pitch for better safeguards; we could have done the same by remaining a part of the government. People needed the Communists’ intervention in key policy matters. We can easily differentiate the work of UPA-I and UPA-II. So in my view, the Communist Party should give heed to the people’s mandate.

Our relations with neighbouring countries need a new look as our role seems to be losing touch with actual issues. What is your opinion on this?

CM: Transferring the Kashmir issue to the UN was a historic mistake of Nehru. The Indian policy, instead of shaping Kashmir as our domestic issue and separating it from bilateral relations with Pakistan, kept giving importance to the separatists and pro-Pakistani elements. It’s a dangerous stand, we should strive to ensure civil rights and contemplate plans of autonomy within the Indian Union—in short, we should directly deal with the people instead of relying on mediators. With Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, our relationship is stable now but political instability in Nepal is a cause for concern. In Nepal, we need to give serious diplomatic and political push without interfering in their due processes—resolving the water problem with Nepal and strengthening trade relations through the border of Bihar and UP can revamp the economy on both sides. It will equally curtail the illegal trafficking after legalisation of no-frill trade across the border.

Our mineral and agricultural policies certainly cause grave discontent among the affected segments. Naxalism has a lot to do with this gap between the policy enactment and existing practical plights. As a veteran politician, how do you view such a state of affairs?

CM: Consistent marginalisation of the rural and tribal population, along with blind exploi-tation of natural resources is leading to alienation on an unprecedented scale. Disruptive forces like the Naxals have been thus emboldened to promote their own interests—here mainstream Communist Parties need to foray in newer territories, including in the service sector. The working pattern of the Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, is unfortunate as he hardly takes measures to address the grave issues of malnourishment, rural unemployment and indebtedness, hunger, suicides etc. Such faux pas as the Supreme Court’s recent order on the issue of distributing rotting foodgrains through the Public Distribution System PDS is alarming; even the Prime Minister speaks in the same tone now. As per another recent Supreme Court order, the local people must be given 20 per cent profit from the mining companies. The same access based delivery system must be introduced in other sectors too. During my ministerial stint, I introduced the Kisan Credit Card, crop insurance, and institutions like Krishi Vigyan Kendra to lift the status of agriculture—these programmes must be carried on with the collaboration of commercial banks, RRBs, and co-operative banks which have greater footprints in the rural areas. That will surely reduce rural indebtedness and enhance the employment potential in the hinterland. Modernisation of agriculture should be given proper place. Here we can learn a lot from the Brazilian transition—how they transformed from an importer into a major exporter of agriculture and dairy products.

I have gone through almost all your published work in the 1940s. You wrote a Maithili novel “Kala” that covered the contemporary conservatism in Maithili society. My observation is that you always come up with solutions both in your writings and politics—should it be seen as diehard optimism?

CM: After matriculation, I hadn’t time or resources to carry on my formal education although I had an intense desire to learn informally; so I developed the pastime of avid learning. Besides the field trips and extensive travels across the world in my long public life enabled me to see things in the right frame. I have written for many news sources, also penned all my political and practical experiences on paper… I tried to address my concerns both as a leader and a concerned citizen. Even at this stage, I think in the same spirit for my country, my party and my birthplace in the Mithila region though my health is not supporting me now.

We sincerely wish you good health and of course better times for the mainstream Communist Parties.

CM: Thanks. In my lifetime, I have a great desire to see consolidation of the Communist Parties to cope with the massive challenges facing us. Besides, I suggest to my fellow party members to avoid the short-cuts and retrieve the old, good habits of the communist ideology…struggle must be our mode for all action.

(Mainstream, February 26, 2011)

SEE ALSO:

How to Meet the Caste Challenge in Politics

Chaturanan Mishra (Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 45, October 30, 2010)

PM Should Rethink

Chaturanan Mishra (Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 6, January 30, 2010)

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