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Mainstream, VOL LV No 44 New Delhi October 21, 2017

Renu Chakravartty: Some Recollections

Monday 23 October 2017, by Hiren Mukerjee

October 21 this year marks the birth centenary of Renu Chakravartty, noted Communist parliamentarian who passed only on April 16, 1994. Remembering her, we are reproducing the following article by Hiren Mukerjee that appeared in Mainstream (April 23, 1994) after her death. Prof Mukerjee and Renu Chakravartty were Deputy Leaders of the Communist Group in the Lok Sabha when A.K. Gopalan was the Leader of the united CP in Parliament.

It is one of the torments of longevity that near and dear ones, younger in age, pass away leaving voids that cannot be filled. Renu Chakravartty, ten years my junior, who died the other day (April 16, 1994), was ailing for quite some time and for various reasons we had met only for short snatches during the past decade, but the news of her death comes as a sudden blow and recollections of our work together flood in. It is difficult to organise my thoughts, but I fear it is my duty to make an effort.

Following so soon upon the death of one of India’s top Communist leaders, C. Rajeswara Rao, Renu’s departure from the scene is a blow also to the communist movement in our country—to which, like so many others of her generation, she had decided in her youth to devote her life and her talents. Born with a silver (why only silver, a golden, even platinum) spoon in her mouth, she could have drifted, after Cambridge, into ‘superior’ segments of society (with a big ‘S’), but she had made up her mind differently. She was helped by the spirit of her time—did’t James Cameron recalling his youth speak of the late thirties as a time when one inevitably thought of oneself as a Communist or as one who should be a Communist, or ife had no meaning? I recall the Oxford Union in the middle and late thirties, a haunt till then of conservatism, passing resolutions “not to fight for King and Country” or recogning “no flag but the Red Flag!”. It all comes back to me as I recollect the first time I heard of Renu was when, around 1939 or so, she went as delegate to an international students’ meet that, whatever the frills, was unashamedly Communist.

She was then Renu Roy, scion of a well-known Bengali Brahmo family—her grand-parents (as my own grandfather who knew them once told me how they) were known for their saintly character. One of her uncles was Bidhan Chandra Roy, pre-eminent in the medical profession, a prominent figure in public life when patriotism called him to politics, who was for many years Chief Minister of West Bengal and deservedly decorated as Bharat Ratna. It was our pride that a niece of Bidhan Chandra had joined us; and that when the uncle’s administration pursued fierce anti-communist policies, the niece (personally his favourite) did not hesitate to fight back, never hesitating to perform arduous Party chores (by no means just comfortably addressing meetings, etc.) and to go underground on Party orders, as she did more than once.

She had married a comrade, Nikhil Chakravartty, presently doyen of Left-wing journalism, who had left Oxford a little earlier to join the ranks of the Party. It is nostalgic to think (now that things seem so different) how they made a little nest of a ‘Party’ family. Perhaps the first journey out of the cradle of their only child Sumit was when, in his mother’s lap, his infant eyes looked on the sprawling Party office in Dacres Lane, Calcutta.

I can only very briefly indicate how Renu, plunging into work, showed her mettle. To the movement for women’s emanicipation, where the Party drafted her, Renu’s contribution sustained as it was through fair and foul weather, will never be forgotten. I cannot go into details, but it was soon clear that Renu’s talents were such that she could not limit herself to being a sectional leader but was, in her own right, a leader of the Party. I shall get lost in a maze if I have to summarise her varied activities. I need here only to recall how valuable she proved herself to our movement.

This is why when the Party contested the first national elections (1951-52) to Parliment of the Republic of India, Renu was one of the first choices among us. She was with me for fifteen (out of my twentyfive) years in the House of the People (Lok Sabha), she and I being deputies of the then Party leader in the House, A.K. Gopalan. I remember how Renu, after all born and brought up in luxury, could go around a semi-urban and largely rural constituency, staying in people’s homes and sharing their lives, propagating the Party’s line and courageously confronting the then allegations about the Communists being ‘unpatriotic’. During the 1962 elections, Renu had the largest majority of votes among all other Lok Sabha contestants from West Bengal.

Parliament missed her badly from 1967 onwards, but by then she was concentrating on Party work in general and particularly on specific issues in West Bengal. For a while, during the second United Front Government in West Bengal, she served as a Minister. In the Party she held high positions, in the National Council, for instance, or the Central Control Commission. All over India, she was known as a national leader, equally at home in the company of such as Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Aruna Asaf Ali, impressing international (as well of course as national) gatherings, whether on women’s rights or on peace and disarmament and other world issues.

In our own Indian Parliament, she had made a mark whether during Question Hour or other discussions, quick and sharp and objective, yet never losing the graceful manner of putting up even striding ‘no nonsense’ criticisms of the government. How I remember once T.T. Krishnamachari remarking that with all the charm of femininity, Renu was “a hard nut to crack” whenever she was in an argumentative mood! How fondly Speaker Mavalankar took it all when once Renu and I, having dinner with the dignitary, asked him if he woke up at nights, saying ‘Order! Order!’ (since that was how the Speaker often stopped us in our track in the House!). Simply and spontaneously, Renu could make a parliamentarily historic remark as when, as a member of the panel, she was chairing a session of Lok Sabha and as some members seeking cheap jollification clamoured over how she should be addressed (whether as ‘Madam’ or ‘Sir’) she just quietly snubbed them: “The Chair has no sex.”

Her Committee work was so good that I have felt a regret she did not have a substantial term as Minister in West Bengal. The Communist leadership everywhere has its own idiosyn-cracies, or perhaps the late Jyotirmoy Bosu (CPI-M) could more usefully have been a West Bengal Minister; with his special talent he might conceivably have jolted a desultory adminis-tration. This is idle rumination, but Renu was cut out, I think, for exacting administrative tasks more than many others I have known.

When the Communist Party of India was split in 1964, it was an hour of agony for most of us, but perhaps it could not be helped. Politics—even communist politics—is some-times a cruel, cynical arena. Renu, I fear, had perhaps more than her share of the flings and arrows of political malice (communist malice being no less rotten than other kinds of malice). Whether right or wrong, she was not the sort of person to flinch, and she remained with the original CPI. I am not sure if she shared the ache of some of us for reconciliation. But I am sure in her own, sometimes obstinate way, she thought she would make herself more useful to the people where she stood politically.

Sometimes I wonder why her talents were not more widely utilised by the CPI during the last two decades when, in spite of growing ailments in recent years, she could have appeared more often in public forums. As far as I know, she did her Party chores meticulousy, but I missed her often on wider public platforms. Perhaps our movement still lacks a grasp of the optimum management of human resources.

I grieve that in the wake of Rajeswara Rao, Renu also has gone. A more humble but valued comrade, Shibulal Bardhan, passed away suddenly the other day. From Delhi comes the news of the death of R.C. Dutt, retired ICS, whose writings and lectures showed how in spite of a certain distance, he was a friend of our movement. I am not cataloguing obituaries, only letting go a bit of my mind in distress. I know also, from personal experience in Moscow in 1987, that Gorbachovian garrulities, hiding a sly, sinister, surrogate counter-revolution, gave him a blow he tried to hide but could not and waited till his body pined away. I never had a talk with Renu on this post-1987 enormity that seems to shut out the lights of socialism for the devil knows how long. For myself, I confess to a shattering sense of history being for the time pulled back for decades. Let me think of Renu and Rajeswara and of so many others and so much else, so that I can fortify to myself as an unrepentant Communist: “It must be worse before it is better.” 

(Mainstream, April 23, 1994)

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