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Mainstream, VOL L, No 29, July 7, 2012

B.C. Roy: Architect of Modern Bengal

Tuesday 10 July 2012, by Barun Das Gupta

The birth and death anniversaries of Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, acclaimed on all hands as the architect of modern Bengal, fall on the same day—July 1. This year it was his 130th birth and 50th death anniversaries on that day. He took charge of West Bengal at a critical juncture. He was sworn in as the Chief Minister on January 23, 1948. The very next month, in February, the Communist Party of India held its Second Party Congress in Calcutta. The party Congress threw out the then General Secretary, P.C. Joshi, and elected B.T. Ranadive as his successor. Under Ranadive’s leadership, the CPI embarked on a path of Left adventurism and Left sectarianism that almost destroyed the party.

So, early in his life as the Chief Minister, Dr Roy had to face the twin challenges of Left extremism and refugee influx. There was the unending stream of millions of Hindu refugees coming from East Bengal or East Pakistan in the wake of partition and the communal riots. For the settlement of the refugees he thought of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was practically a virgin island ready to welcome human settlement. If the refugees could be sent and settled there, the problem of rehabilitating them could be solved without straining the economy of West Bengal which had been badly hurt by partition. But the myopic leadership of the Left frustrated his effort by insisting that all the refugees be settled in Bengal and none would be allowed to be sent across kalapani.

Later, much later, the Left leaders realised their folly. Dandakaranya came up. Some refugees were also sent to the Andamans. There was no resistance. But by then West Bengal had lost the advantage of taking the initiative.

Next, Dr Roy turned his attention to the all-round development of the State. The Congress held its session at Kalyani, a few miles north of Kolkata, in 1954. Dr Roy took the opportunity of developing Kalyani as an industrial centre and a satellite town of Kolkata. Next he turned his attention to Durgapur in Burdwan district. It was a vast stretch of arid land unfavourable for cultivation.

Dr Roy started developing Durgapur as an industrial town. The Durgapur Steel Plant came up. The Alloy Steel Plant came up. Then an umpteen number of industries grew. The development of Durgapur continued even after Dr Roy’s Death. For example, the Mining and Allied Machineries Corporation (MAMC) came up in 1965. For neither Kalyani nor Durgapur, was it necessary for him to acquire land by using the police to evict occupants unwilling to give up possession.

Developing the vast swampy marsh, known as Salt Lake, to the east of Kolkata, as an extension of the main city, was also the idea of Dr Roy. The swamp was filled up by pumping in mud and sand from the Ganga. Today, it has a population of 2.18 lakhs and it is still expanding to the east, with the Rajarhat town complex coming up as an adjoining urban agglomerate, mainly residential.

HE gave top priority to the all-round develop-ment of West Bengal. He had often to exert pressure on the Centre to get things done for his State. Sometimes he would even ask the Left leaders to do some agitation for realising Bengal’s demands from the Centre. ‘It would strengthen my hands if you do a bit of agitation,’ he would tell them. He had a rapport with the Left leaders. His fondness for Jyoti Basu was well known.

But he would crack jokes even with others. Once he went to have a holy dip at the Ganga Sagar at the time of the Sankranti. When the next State Assembly session began, CPI leader Bankim Mukherjee referred to the visit and asked him whether he had gone to expiate and wash in the Ganga all the sins that he committed during his lifetime. Pat came the riposte: ‘Han, ami rekhe elam, tomra mekhe ashbe. (Yes, I have left my sins there so that you may go and smear those on your body.)’

As a doctor, Bidhan Roy became a legend in his lifetime for his almost uncanny diagnostic powers. There are any number of stories about his diagnosis. Here is one such. A few years before his death he went to Vienna for an eye operation. He had been laid on the operation table and preparations for the operation were going on. Suddenly Dr Roy heard someone cough.

‘Who coughed?’—he demanded to know. One of the doctors told him: ‘He is a colleague of ours, sir. He is a doctor.’ ‘Get his chest X-rayed. He has got TB.’ The doctors were taken aback. Someone said: ‘He is all right, sir. There is nothing wrong with him.’ ‘Get his chest X-rayed,’ the booming voice commanded. Dr Roy’s fame had reached Vienna also. So the junior doctor was X-rayed. And, indeed, he was found to have a tubercular infection in his lung.

This writer has a childhood memory about Dr Roy. It was 1945. Mahatma Gandhi was staying at the Khadi Pratisthan ashram at Sodepur, near Kolkata. One of the members of his entourage (we used to refer to them as the ‘Gandhi party’), Shrimati Kanchan Behn, fell critically ill. Everybody gave up hope. Gandhiji said: ‘Ask Bidhan to come.’ Dr Roy came, treated her and brought her back from death’s door. Later, she told my father: ‘I had experienced death in my being.’

As a leader and administrator, Dr Roy did not suffer from pettiness or narrow-mindedness. As an administrator he had to be tough and take unpopular measures when the occasion so demanded. But there was no personal rancour or malice in anything he did. These qualities stood out in sharp relief during the three-and-a-half decades of CPI-M rule when no less a person than the Chief Minister of the State would discriminate on amra-ora (‘we and they’) basis.

Dr Roy’s was the era of development and construction for Bengal. The CPI-M era was not one of non-development but of contra-development and destruction. They left the State in a sorry mess—and with over two lakh crore rupees of debt, to boot. The one thought that occupies the mind of most Bengalis on the day of the birth anniversary of Dr B.C. Roy is how to regain the glory of the bygone era.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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