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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

A Communist Speaks: Memoirs of a Namasudra

Saturday 26 December 2015, by A K Biswas


Amar Jeevan: Kichu Katha (Bengali) by Kanti Biswas; Ekush Shatak, Kolkata; October 2014; pages 144, Price: Rs 150.

The privileged can rarely assess and analyse the damage and hurt caste can inflict to the personality and psyche of the underdogs. The cost to human dignity and esteem is incalculable. Memoirs of Dalit writers, who have suffered caste-based assault and humiliation, portray this aspect almost without exception. Caste-driven prejudice against the lower social strata invades the Dalit in total disregard for their accom-plishments in life and every Dalit, irrespective of glowing achievements in life, is exposed to the vagaries of ill-treatment from the society. This leaves indelible and permanent scars on the victim of hurt and humiliation arising out of caste hatred and discrimination.

The life of Dr K.R. Narayanan (October 27, 1920-November 9, 2005), who was the tenth President of India, illustrated this aspect very succinctly. He served as the ambassador to Japan, United Kingdom, Thailand, Turkey, People’s Republic of China and the United States of America. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru described him as “the best diplomat of the country”.1 Nara-yanan obtained his BA (Honours) and MA in English Literature from the University of Travancore (1940-43). In his Masters examination, he had secured the first position in First Class and went to the London School of Economics (LSE) for higher studies. Reminiscing his dramatic entry into the prestigious Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Narayanan spoke about it.

“When I finished with LSE, (Prof Harold) Laski, of his own, gave me a letter of introduction for Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru). On reaching Delhi I sought an appointment with the Prime Minister. I suppose, because I was an Indian student returning home from London, I was given a time-slot. It was here in Parliament House that he met me. We talked for a few minutes about London and things like that and I could soon see that it was time for me to leave. So I said goodbye and as I left the room I handed over the letter from Laski, and stepped out into the great circular corridor outside. When I was half-way round, I heard the sound of someone clapping from the direction I had just come. I turned to see Panditji [Nehru] beckoning me to come back. He had opened the letter as I left his room and read it. [Nehru asked:] ‘Why didn’t you give this to me earlier?’ .......‘Well, sir, I am sorry. I thought it would be enough if I just handed it over while leaving.’ After a few more questions, he asked me to see him again and very soon I found myself entering the Indian Foreign Service.”2

When the alumni of Travancore University became the President of India after 54 years (July 25, 1997-July 25, 2002), the authorities of the University corrected their indiscretion and in a special convocation held at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, Delhi presented to him the certificate of Masters Degree. The University’s ordinance as well as convention mandated the authorities to offer a lecturership to any student whosoever topped in MA examinations. They, however, chose to violate their own law than honouring an unstoppable untouchable topper. The authorities offered him instead a clerkship. In protest Narayanan did not attend the Convocation of the University to receive his Degree certificate. How were his days as the President?

“As the President of India, I had lots of experiences that were full of pain and help-lessness. There were occasions when I could do nothing for people and for the nation. These experiences have pained me a lot. They have depressed me a lot. I have agonided because of the limitations of power. Power and the helplessness surrounding it are a peculiar tragedy, in fact.”3

Some of the Malayalis in Kerala sneered at Dr Narayanan, saying: “Look, look, that cap may climb up the flag-post instead of unfurling the flag” while, as the President of India, he was hoisting the tricolour on a ceremonial occasion.4 This was a derogatory reference to his caste, Parawan, whose ancestral profession was to climb coconuts trees for harvesting its fruits.

The above narrative underlines the extent Brahmanical vitriol can propel them to target their victims without any rhyme and reason. The caste supremacists spare none if he is a Dalit, the euphemism for untouchables—be he the President of the nation or one in the street anytime and anywhere. Kanti Biswas’ memoirs depict precisely this social panorama as well.

Minister of School Education, 

Kanti under Harrow of Prejudice 

Kanti Biswas’ foray into the electoral battle began with his first victory on a Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) ticket in 1977. The Cabinet with Jyoti Basu as the Chief Minister of West Bengal was formed sans any Scheduled Caste representative. This smacked of an uncommon discrimination, which Kanti brought to the Chief Minister’s attention. The leader of the proletariat nonetheless bared his fang with an insensitive remark: “We know the Scheduled Castes are socially and economically backward, but what is the justification to include someone of them as a Minister?” (p. 77) This is precisely the sarcasm the All Bengal Namasudra Association in 1928 had hurled for attention of the Simon Commission about the insensitive bhadralok who had “assumed the position of the heaven-born guardians of the masses”.5 This is precisely their paternalistic attitude, a blatant lie though, that leads them to believe that they are capable of taking care of everything and every section—Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, minorities. Kanti thereafter was inducted in the Cabinet without portfolio. Insulted, he resigned in a few days as he became a butt of ridicule to the Dalits at large. As a damage-control exercise, Youth Affairs and Home (Passport) were allotted to him. He gave a very creditable account of himself to earn spontaneous applause from even orthodox quarters.

No, make no Chandal Education Minister of West Bengal

In 1982, the LF coalition was voted back to power for a second term and Kanti was allotted School Education, a charge, though highly challenging, he held, election after election, till 2006. The reputation of the State in the field of school education the Left Front Government earned was for Kanti Biswas’ silent and dedicated service. But Education in the hands of Kanti brought the harrow of prejudice of the orthodox vultures out in the open. Pramod Dasgupta, the CPM’s State Secretary and a Polit-Bureau member, one day summoned Kanti and handed over some 400 letters to him. He had received those letters though Kanti was the subject matter of them all. He took out an inland-letter written by one Bhattacharya (name withheld) from Bhatpara, 24-Parganas and read out as was desired by Dasgupta. “What if,” wrote Bhattacharya, “he is highly successful as Minister of Youth Affairs in the first LF Government, Kanti Biswas, in any case, is a Chandal. Bengal would be disgraced to receive education with a Chandal in the saddle. Educational progress would receive serious setback and be retarded under his stewardship.” Proffering an advice to the party’s State Secretary, Bhattacharya wrote: “the Chandal might be drafted for some other, if necessary, more important departments with higher responsi-bilities and authorities, but for heaven’s sake, a Chandal as Minister must not be allowed to handle Education in Bengal, which will suffer irreparable damages in the end.” (pp. 87-88) To make his point foolproof the Brahman noted duly that he was aware that the Chandal was a meritorious student of Dhaka University.

To aSanskrit scholar, Chandal is no more than an untouchable. No ancient literature—comprising scriptures, Puranas, epics—was complete without fulmination against the Chandal. In the instant case, the highly educated victim of unearned hatred has maintained enigmatic silence and refrained from recording his feelings over the injury and agony inflicted on him by a Brahman. The images of the Chandal that conjured up before the Bhatpara-dweller propelled him to write the letter to the Communist Party’s top leader. What are those images? Forty Brahmans of Bengal in 1901 wrote out a vyavastha outlining the characteristics of Chandals: Vagrant and not touchable, the Chandals live outside the villages in rags gathered from dead bodies with only assets comprising dogs and asses. Their principal occupation is to burn the dead and hang criminals by the command of the king.6 Bhatpara did not crawl out of its dark cave to light.

Bhatpara on the Hooghly river boasts of “rich traditions of Sanskrit learning”. “Bhatta-Palli” denotes ‘Bhatta’, a sect of Brahmans versed in Sanskrit, and ‘palli’, a locality or village.7

The overpowering influence of the renai-ssance of nineteenth century Bengal, which was the result of introduction of modern education and knowledge, coupled with science and rationalism, philosophy and literature, above all, respect for human dignity that made Bengalis proud, had miserably failed to make inroads into Bhatpara, a little dark continent dominated by the ancient learning till the last breath of the twentieth century. The wonder is that national independence on the demise of colonial domination, democratic way of life, foothold of Marxian philosophy in political thoughts and action, electoral politics and upsurge of aspirations of the common man—all stood trashed before it. This glamorous underbelly, emitting extensive moral toxin and pollution, has not driven yet the intelligentsia to shame.

 Kanti Biswas a Bengali Brahman to Union HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi 

“I hold Kanti Biswas in highest esteem. Nobody commands as much knowledge as Education Minister nor have I seen yet another who is comparable to him.” This was how the Human Resources Development Minister, Government of India, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, a former professor of Physics, Allahabad University (1885), paid handsome compliments to Biswas in a conference of State Education Ministers in Delhi in 2000. We have noted before how and why Bhatpara launched its tirade against Kanti. Prof Joshi did not know that the Chandal had survived blistering attacks from Bhatpara long before him. The conference was then dumb-founded by the Union HRD Minister’s thunder: “But I hate him, ‘cause he is a liar.” ((pp. 89-90)

Did he lie at all and why? The accuser let the cat out of his bag thus underlining the reasons for his infatuation: “I know Kanti Biswas is a Bengali Brahman. To reap political mileage in elections out of the predominant Scheduled Caste population, he has procured a fake Scheduled Caste certificate.” In 2000, the State Education Ministers were consulted for adoption of ‘The National Curriculum Framework’. The Ministers from States ruled by the Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party were bitterly at loggerheads, rendering unanimity or consensus on the critical issue impossible. At this point, many State Ministers wanted Kanti Biswas to share his views and ideas. Kanti told the conference that in a vast and diverse country like India education must be above narrow and parochial frame and perspective. It has to be broad-based, bias-free for all and offensive to none. His approach appealed to all and settled the contentious issue. Prof Joshi did not know Kanti Biswas was an erstwhile Chandal.

He rebutted and turned the table on Prof Joshi. “Why and on what basis do you call me a liar? What drives you to believe a low-caste person cannot acquire knowledge and become accomplished in education? You are utterly wrong to believe that merit is an exclusive preserve of the Brahmans. I belong to a Scheduled Caste. I unequivocally condemn your puerile attitude marked by prejudice and orthodoxy. You have no knowledge about my caste.”

Caste has rigged every sphere of life—social, cultural, political, administrative, economic and even in death. On this Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s observation on the Hindu psychological orientation is oft quoted. “The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable.....A Hindu’s public is his caste. His responsibility is only to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste [.....]There is no appreciation of the merito-rious. [...........] The capacity to appreciate merits in a man apart from his caste does not exist in a Hindu. There is appreciation of virtue but only when the man is a fellow caste-man.”8

In 1985, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) invited Kanti Biswas for speaking to the students, researchers and faculties of the Patrice Lumumba International University, Moscow which, according to the Ministry of Education of Russia, is the country’s third-best university after the Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg State University. Kanti was loudly cheered by all those who heard him with the aid of an interpreter for over an hour-and-half. In an unusual gesture, his invitation was extended by the Soviet authorities for ten days during which Kanti, as an official guest, was taken to various important places across the USSR.

Jealousy and malice exploded in the cloistered world of Bengali Communists over this invitation. Some questioned his ability and entitlement for such an honour from the Mecca of Indian Communists. They wondered why a schoolmaster would go to address a university audience in Moscow while their accomplish-ments were more shining. Jyoti Basu, however, threw cold water on his cantankerous comrades, saying that the USSR would not invite any Tom, Dick and Harry without clinical verification of the invitee’s credentials and abilities. On another occasion, the solitary overseas resource person was Kanti Biswas whose comments and obser-vations were solicited on the UK Education Commission report by the British Education Minister.

Memoirs not in Communist Culture

Writing memoirs is not in the communist culture. Few have done so. Those exceptions were Muzaffar Ahmed, B.T. Ranadive and P. Sundarayya besides Manabendra Nath Roy. Manoranjan Boral and Kanti Biswas, like Muzaffar Ahmad, recorded their experiences in Bengali. The Communists have created an aura that they do not dabble in faith or caste. This is untenable, if not hogwash, fit to be dismissed with the disdain it merits.

Unfamiliar with the dynamics and dimen-sions of caste, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels knew only about class, an economic postulate of human society. They had formulated a humanitarian ideology in an environ beyond the pernicious ambit and influences of caste which, therefore, did not find space in their lexicon. In India, caste is omnipresent and omniscient. Kanti’s narrative corroborates this truth. A Communist Minister, when accosted by mediamen for his worship of goddess Kali at Tarapeeth temple, he declared that he was “a Hindu first, then a Brahmin, and mentioned nothing about being a Communist, immediately provoking the Bharatiya Janata Party to roll out the welcome mat if he wanted to join”.9 Though the memoirs omitted to note his name, the media reports disclosed that he was the maverick Sports and Transport Minister, Subhas Chakraborti. Their belief that class inequality would dissipate and disappear with mobili-sation of the masses under the Communists in India is untenable. The social, moral and attitudinal impact of Left rule for over three decades on Bengalis must be deep and deplorable though no systematic assessment has been attempted. But we dare say Marx and Engels have been decorated with sacred threads in Bengal at least.

Caste in Fertile Land

In West Bengal, the LF leadership has displayed elastic docility and obeisance to the caste syndicate called bhadralok, more than loyalty to Marxian philosophy. The Assembly elections of 1991 returned 56 Kayasthas and 55 Brahmans and five Baidyas, aggregating at 116 MLAs with Jyoti Basu at the helm whereas Buddhadeb Bhattacharya reversed the trend by putting 65 Brahmans in the top slot as against 59 Kayasthas and Baidyas. MLAs bearing surnames, for example, Banerjee, Chatterjee, Mukherjee, Ganguly, Bhattacharya, Chakraborty were 44, accounting for an awesome 22.1 per cent of the total strength and 29.6 per cent of the unreserved Assembly although the demographic reality scarcely justifies such disproportionately high share without injury to democratic norms and values. It is added that there were ten MLAs bearing the surname Mukherjee, all returned on the CPM ticket. It was a quizzical social message for the countrymen that none of this breed placed their faith on any other party at the hustings! Baidyas and Kayasthas won 59 seats equivalent to 26 per cent of the representatives.10 In 1991, to conform to political fairness and demographic justification, they together deserved a mere 19 MLAs. Muslims, who accounted for 23 per cent population, had 40 MLAs, equivalent to just 13 per cent representatives.11 The bhadralok usurped the shares of the cake of backward castes and Muslims and thus have fattened themselves opulently on others’ shares. Observers have noted that Mamata Banerjee has maintained the trend set by her predecessors in office. And the bhadralok are nonetheless the loudest in their paeans for universal brotherhood, equality and harmony which many acknowledge with high decibel approbation.

In the Cabinet of 33 Ministers, headed by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, 16 Brahmans to account for 48 per cent whereas Baidyas and Kayasthas 21 per cent. Thus the bhadralok share in the Cabinet was 69 per cent!12 The State and its people thus saw complete monopolisation of political power in 6.1 per cent of the population, a bad day for democracy and public well-being. Caste, we are often told, plays a dirty role in electoral politics in backward Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Haryana, MP etc.

A Village Boy from Faridpur

Kanti was born at village Bukrail under Kashiani thana in district Faridpur, now Bangladesh. Mere 21 days before his birth, his father, Jogendranath Biswas, a primary school teacher, died. Prejudice over this tragedy befalling the family hit the newborn child with accusation that he was a curse. In the face of constant condemnation as a curse, his grandmother took Kanti to Guru Chand Thakur and solicited her grandson’s death! The Thakur, on the contrary, blessed the child for long life and a promising future. Founder of the Matua religious order, Guru Chand’s father, Hari Chand, was a great patriarch of the Namasudra community in social reforms and literacy.

In the teeth of grinding poverty and privations, Kanti displayed his talent as a student. His academic results were shining all through. In a highly competitive examination comprising thousands of students of East and West Pakistan, he secured the first place for selecting candidates for two scholarships under the Colombo Plan for higher education in England. He declined the prestigious scholarship because he refused to give (1) an undertaking to shun communist politics; and (2) a commitment to serve Pakistan after completion of higher studies abroad.

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