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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 34

The Conciliatory Revolutionary

Sunday 10 August 2008, by Darshan Singh

On October 2, 2006, the thought of writing a novel based on the life of CPM stalwart Harkishan Singh Surjeet began to germinate in my mind. The idea took me to Surjeet’s residence where I sat with him and other members of his family in the verandah of his spacious Delhi home. We began talking over sips of oversweet tea. I told him that I was writing a novel set against the backdrop of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections in which he played a pivotal role, and I wanted him to help fill in the blanks. This book was later published as Bhau.

Surjeet asked to me come towards the end of the month, because he had not been in the best of health for some time now and, moreover, he had a bad throat and had trouble speaking. When I got up to leave, Surjeet asked me who I was—a question that did not surprise me for I had never been close to him. I had met him in the early fifties when he was heading the party’s cell that published periodicals for the Punjab party from the national Capital. I was working in one of the cells and we would meet only when he came to our office. Our meetings were few, and became even fewer after the party split in 1964. I joined the CPI while Surjeet emerged as one of the leading lights of the CPM. Still, I introduced myself in detail and Surjeet did say that he had recognised me, though I knew he had not placed me even then. Surjeet’s family told me that his memory was not all that good any longer and that he would not be able to help me too much with my book either. Though at that moment I had promised Surjeet that I would go back at the end of the month for a detailed conversation, I did not go.

I began researching Surjeet from books, magazines, old newspaper cuttings and people close to him. Surjeet, for me, was the person who had put a party which was known only in two States, firmly on the national scene. He was a pragmatic party builder, working with the masses, the farmers, and the common man. He first built his party in Punjab and later in the mid-seventies, took over the reins in Delhi. He enjoyed four terms as the General Secretary of the party and had his health not failed him, a fifth term was not beyond him.

He was the person who, as a 14-year-old, hoisted the tricolour in a Hoshiarpur court when Bhagat Singh was sent to the gallows. Surjeet was shot twice and even jailed. He was the young boy in 1936 who razed his standing maize crop in two acres of his village farm back, so that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru could hold a jalsa, that was being blocked by those who opposed him. Young Indira Gandhi too accompanied her father for this meeting, and certainly did not remember this chance encounter.

And when the phenomenon of coalition governments emerged, Surjeet again displayed his genius as a person who could lean over to other parties, win over foes, build bridges amongst different political parties yet never leave his own base, his own ideology and his party. Many felt that he enjoyed immense power within his own party and that had he been well, the Left’s stand on the nuclear deal and the trust vote would have been different, for as far as Surjeet was concerned, the biggest enemy of India was communalism and he always stressed that communal parties must be kept out of power. The UPA’s ride to power in 2004 is given as an example of this. But I would not subscribe to this notion, and would rather maintain that he was in the minority. Despite his best efforts he could not convince his party to let Jyoti Basu become the Prime Minister of India in 1996, and had he enjoyed power he would have saved the CPM from making this historic blunder.

Yet everyone knows that Surjeet was a simple man with simple tastes. His home was modest, his clothes and lifestyle simple but he loved his tea with a lot of sugar. At the beginning of his political career he owned eight acres of land in his native village Bandala near Jalandhar and at the time of his death he still owned just those eight acres. Yet he was the man who was known as the kingmaker, the person who made Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, officials, and groomed young comrades who now run the party. He helped many set up business enterprises and he was the person who collected huge funds for his party, the CPM, but for himself, he was a simple man.

Darshan Singh is the author of ‘Bhau’—a fictional account of CPM leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet’s life.

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