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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 34

Comrade Surjeet—the True Marxist

Sunday 10 August 2008, by Sitaram Yechury


* Comrade Surjeet is no more. A flood of memories overwhelms me as I start to write this. I met him first in 1973, 35 years ago. His sharp and, at times, mischievous eyes, and the speed of his speech would often leave me and fellow comrades confused trying to decipher exactly what he had said. He was always quicksilver, thought on his feet, leaving his political adversaries at least two steps behind.

* When I came into the Central Committee in 1984 and started working for the party’s Centre, relinquishing the presidentship of the SFI in 1986, I was assigned the responsibility to assist him (Surjeet was head of the International Department in the party then). One area of working with him and the consequent exposure is in dealing with the international communist movement and parties.

* I still recollect how he told Mikhail Gorbachev (in 1987 in Moscow, on the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution, with E.M.S. Nambodiripad, then General Secretary, and me on the other side)—with a straight face—that Gorbachev’s thesis was “wrong” and ran the danger of “undermining the Soviet Union and derailing the communist movement internatio-nally”. Surjeet was always sad that his assessment was vindicated.

* Soon after the defeat of the Emergency in India, Surjeet was astute enough to realise that the days of single-party rule were over. And in the possible coalition that were to emerge, the Left needed to position itself and play an important role to help steer the course of Indian politics. He was deeply committed to the fact that the future of communism in India is integrally and inseparably with the future of India itself as a secular, democratic republic.

* All the combinations that he helped forge had this singular aim: to defend and strengthen India’s plurality. It was his spontaneous offer to support the V.P. Singh Government from outside, that forced the BJP to do likewise, and not join it. His confidence that the secular parties would remain together in the United Front (in 1996) that was formed post-elections despite the BJP being the single-largest party and being called to form the government, was also borne out by the BJP having to demit office after 13 days.

* Though he fully backed Jyoti Basu’s candidature for Prime Ministership, it was again the remarkable strength of character of both Comrade Surjeet and Comrade Basu that they cheerfully abided by the party’s decision, that disagreed with them. Having assigned by the party to be with him in the Steering Committee of the United Front, I could see the way he would deal with the other parties, never losing track of the fundamental objectives of safeguarding the secular fabric of India.

* He would often tell me his experience of Partition and longingly of his desire to ride his bicycle once again from Lahore to Amritsar as he did in his youth in undivided India. Finally, only a few years before he died, he managed to visit Pakistan (and was feted by Pervez Musharraf). Somewhere deep within him there always was the pain at having lost lives in the communal carnage that he had seen in 1947—and this is what made him always work tirelessly towards a “secular” polity, a sentiment perhaps not often understood or appreciated enough by a generation which has been luckier.

He uncompromisingly led the party in the fight against Khalistani separatism and terror during the eighties, and provided both the strength and inspiration for a party which lost at least 200 of its leading comrades (apart from numerous other sympathisers who were martyred in that dark period). Surjeet’s greatest strength was his ability, as a true Marxist, to evaluate concrete conditions with his head on his shoulders and to never be surprised by them.

In 1980, he remained cool as a cucumber, when Atal Behari Vajpayeeji walked into our office, seeking our vote in the New Delhi constituency, to defeat Congress’s CM Stephen! Surjeet calmly told Vajpayee that the CPM suffered the most in the Emergency and was unequivocally opposed to it, and left Vajpayeeji guessing…

For all the power he represented and the positions he held, Surjeet remained quintessentially the simple Punjab peasant, into whose family he was born. In Moscow and in Beijing, trips we undertook together attending party conferences, he would knock on my door in the morning and say “tea is ready”, which he would prepare using the hot water in the washroom taps, or tell me to not buy a pair of shoes I needed, as “back home, I have an extra pair which you can use”.

His concern for party wholetimers was very touching. If anyone was unable to make both ends meet, he would write an article (in the “bourgeois press”) and give the comrade the cheque he would get as remuneration, quietly.

Having been denied the opportunity and the wherewithal to have had a formal education, he nevertheless pursued writing, and acquired the pseudonym ‘Surjeet’—his original name being just Harkishan Singh.

Having been arrested for hoisting the Tricolour when he had just entered his teens, he spent many years behind bars and underground, fighting the British. The story goes that he was whisked away minutes after his wedding by the police in British India and kept in solitary confinement. Upon his return eight years later, his wife had to be pointed out to him! Pritam Kaur, his wonderful and stoic wife, remains as committed to her companion and his cause to the day.

Like all lofty visions, Surjeet’s was actually very simple. A vast majority of India, he always felt, celebrates its diversity. Hence, it is perfectly possible to forge political alliances, reflecting this diverse and progressive reality. This confidence looked hopeless and thoroughly misplaced prior to the 2004 general elections. Yet, it threw up the UPA-Left combine that was forged post-elections. And Surjeet was its sutradhaar.

At the Deoli concentration camp in the 1930s, Surjeet was there alongwith other legendary Communist figures like B.T. Ranadive, Dr G. Adhikari and P.C. Joshi. To keep themselves amused, they would take bets with each other. Surjeet boasted that he could consume a ser of ghee—a thought, which the others baulked at—the ghee was somehow smuggled in and Surjeet consumed it in one go, only to have the other three stay awake sitting by his side the whole night fearing that he would now meet his end.

Surjeet woke up in the morning, and with his lota went into the khet (field) and returned to tell his comrades, that “urban Communists will have to work very hard to understand real India”—a lesson that remains relevant even today. The author, a member of the CPM Polit-Bureau, is also a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.

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