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Bengal’s self-recovery foretold
The best tribute to Syama Prasad Mookerjee on his 117th birth anniversary today would be for the bhadralok to rescue his legacy from the hands of lumpens, revolutionary or otherwise
When a beleaguered and ill Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), one of the most articulate, forceful, imaginative and creative voices in Bengal’s many hued and rich literary firmament, had appealed for help and support, the only one who came forward to stand by him and bail him out of a very tough cul-de-sac was Syama Prasad Mookerjee, then Finance Minister in the Progressive Democratic Coalition ministry in Bengal that he had formed with Fazlul Haq, to loosen the grip of the Muslim League and to marginalise it in the province.
A number of Nazrul’s co-religionists, leaders and ministers, including Haq, to whom he had turned for help, had procrastinated or had ignored the bard’s plea. Pushed to the wall, cornered, battered under the weight of circumstances, the poet had even contemplated suicide, when Syama Prasad came forward to bail him out.
In a moving letter dated July 17 1942, Nazrul wrote to Syama Prasad, “...Among the members of this Coalition Ministry, I have whole hearted respect only for you. Also, I have sincere affection for you — I have no respect for others. I believe that one day we will make India fully independent. On that glorious day, Bengalis will remember most you and Subhas babu — you will be the country’s true leaders...Your magnanimity, generosity and genuine affection for me, your courage, uprightness, and bravery have percolated into every pore of my body and mind...” Such was the deep impression that Syama Prasad left on all those who came in touch with him. Had he not stood by Nazrul during those fateful days, the poet’s voice would have perhaps been forever silenced.
But Nazrul’s premonition was belied. Subhas Bose’s legacy continued to live on in independent India, against much official apathy and attempts at generating confusion and obfuscation on various aspects of his life and contribution, while Syama Prasad’s legacy and his multi-dimensional contribution to India’s public life was marginalised, its memory diluted, boxed and relegated to the margins of our academia and intellectual life.
Had it not been for the Jana Sangh — the political movement that Dr Mookerjee conceived and launched — and its stalwart leaders and later the BJP, Dr Mookerjee’s contributions would have been completely engulfed by the dynasty and family obsessed chroniclers of our times, especially by the Left intelligentsia which has controlled the discourse of modern India over the last four decades or so.
So complete was this collective silence of a certain section on Dr Mookerjee that, except for a few books and biographies, no concerted attempt was ever made to collate and publish his collected works, no effort was made to delineate and decipher his vision and thought in the many fields that he worked or had intervened in.
The question that we are now often asked is why was Dr Mookerjee’s works never published, why was his contribution as an educationist, as an administrator, as a minister and as a leading opposition leader in the early years of Independence never systematically documented?
The answer lies in the hitherto undemocratic spirit of our academic and research institutions which, as is now well-established, were controlled and directed by a section for whom the nation, its civilisational identity, sovereignty and unity were all subsidiary, commodities or positions that could be altered, modified, re-stated and abdicated to suit the dialectical frameworks of a certain ideology.
Since Dr Mookerjee, his life and even his death stand as an antithesis to these ideological positions, it was best for them to relegate him to the status of a minor provincial leader or at best the leader of a fringe which failed to make a difference.
His vast constitutional contribution, his stellar parliamentary performance and his dogged adherence to the democratic spirit of addressing political issues were all glossed over, it suited a certain section to strait-jacket him into a false mould and to ensure that it remained that way and eventually was calcified.
It was only this year, 65 years after his sudden and mysterious death that the Government of West Bengal, realising the growing interest in Dr Mookerjee’s life and under increasing pressure from a section of the public which is beginning to realise the relevance of Dr Mookerjee today, decided to observe his death anniversary.
The Bengali intelligentsia’s infatuation with ‘revolutionary’ Marxism made them deliberately ignore and blanket Dr Mookerjee’s contribution, especially his herculean effort in salvaging a portion of Bengal and retaining it in India.
Ironically, a number of Left and Left-leaning historians or pseudo-historians, have blamed Dr Mookerjee for the Partition of Bengal and have until recently in their writings supported HS Suhrawardy’s proposition, made during the period when the partition debate was at its height, of forming a ‘united sovereign Bengal’.
It is a well-known and easily established fact that the pipe dream of a ‘united sovereign Bengal’ was a ruse devised by Jinnah to lure the province into his Pakistan and to eventually obliterate her cultural and overall civilisational identity.
In fact, when Jinnah was told of this plan of a united sovereign Bengal which would be unaffiliated to India and Pakistan, he is said to have salivated and exclaimed that he was delighted, “I am sure they would be on friendly terms with us”, he is said to have replied. Such an arrangement, had it been pushed through, would certainly have created a zone of conflict with Pakistan trying to gobble up all of Bengal.
Yet a number of Left intellectuals and a section of those who circumnavigate the Trinamool Congress power structure and have emerged as mouthpieces of that party, all Bengali bhadralok, continue to deny Syama Prasad’s historic intervention in the creation of West Bengal. By accepting that, Syama Prasad created West Bengal they fear losing political control, especially over a section which increasingly wants to go back into the near past to relocate themselves in the present.
This shallow and self-defeating infatuation with Marxism and now with political lumpenism, under the Trinamool Congress dispensation, has in fact obliterated or diluted Bengal’s collective consciousness when it comes to her nationalist past. Not that the memory has been lost, it remains at a subconscious level and is increasingly responding to whenever shaken or reminded of it.
Over the years, the ‘secular’ Bengali bhadralok, many of whom had had turned into refugees and began life anew in West Bengal because Dr Mookerjee had ensured that a portion was saved, was quick to lapse into a Marxist amnesia and began systematically dismantling the memory of Bengal’s nationalist past. Her thought-leaders and political stalwarts were gradually forgotten, or the discourse on their life and legacy was allowed to lapse.
Successive generations have, over the last six decades, thus grown up in the State without ever knowing of Syama Prasad’s vast contribution to the life of Bengal and of Bengalis, while those who attempted to keep alive the narrative were branded as reactionaries and fifth columnists.
That narrative continues to face resistance from the practitioners of appeasement politics, from separatists, from insurgents and India baiters and yet the imposed blanket of silence is being pierced by a rising public consciousness which is gradually forcing a debate, a discussion and is beginning to generate once more a narrative on Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
With West Bengal facing an acute crisis of identity and of democracy today, Nazrul’s prescient words are once more coming to life, in recognising and remembering Syama Prasad Mookerjee most, lies the way ahead for Bengal’s self-recovery and her true self-expression.
(The writer is director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Research Foundation, New Delhi and a Member of the Visva Bharati Samsad. Views expressed are personal)
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