“We adopted an economic policy in which we interacted with industrialists. We told them that it is because of the workers they are making profits.”
Excerpts from an interview with Jyoti Basu that appeared in Frontline in December 2005 (December 03-16):
Jyoti Basu, at 93, is active and engaged with the commitments that have ruled his life — Left politics and the concerns of West Bengal whose government he has headed for more than 25 years. Although he insists that he has retired from active politics, he continues to be a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), he visits the party office on Alimuddin Street in Kolkata twice a week, he addresses meetings, and continues to meet comrades, friends and colleagues. Parvathi Menon met him for an extended interview over two days in his home in Kolkata. On both occasions he was in a relaxed mood, full of humour and good cheer.
Your political life has spanned eight decades of momentous change. Could you begin by telling our readers something about your early political influences?
Although mine was a non-political family, I remember three events from the freedom movement that affected me and got me interested in politics. When I was sitting for the senior Cambridge examination in St. Xavier’s School in Calcutta (as Kolkata was then called) in the 1930s, Gandhiji went on a fast. He called for a popular movement, and reading the papers I felt very bad. That day I told my father, who used to drop me at school every day, I did not feel like going to school. He understood without my telling him the reason. The second event was when Subhas Chandra Bose was to address a meeting in the Calcutta Maidan. A cousin and I wore khadi clothes and went for the meeting. It did not take place. Thousands of people were gathered when a lathicharge began. Subhas Bose was arrested. We thought that since we were wearing khadi we should not run away. So we walked away and got a baton charge from an Anglo Indian sergeant. The third event that influenced me was the Chittagong Armoury raid, which took place in 1930. For one or two days Chittagong was in the hands of those who were fighting for freedom with arms. They then had to retreat and fight from the hills. At that time I had a tiff with my Anglo-Indian and British friends who were studying in St. Xavier’s, because the Jesuit fathers had circulated a leaflet condemning the incident in Chittagong. I was supporting the rebels. I did not realise at the time how much these events affected me.
Could you describe your stay in England in the 1930s as a law student — the flavour of the times and the people and events that influenced you?
I went to London in 1935, after passing my degree with honours from Presidency College. Those were stirring times of great upheaval. I got interested in politics and in the freedom movement in our country. Students in Oxford, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics were discussing all this. Communist leaders in India — Muzaffar Ahmad in particular — were in touch with the Communist Party of Great Britain, the CPGB. Later on I heard that he sent the party a message asking the CPGB not to mix with “our boys”, those who wanted to come back and work for the Communist Party in India as wholetimers, because they would then be kept under police watch. Before us, people like Hiren Mukherji and Sajjad Zaheer had decided to come back and work for the party.
We formed the All Great Britain Indian Students Federation, and the London Majlis, of which I was elected general secretary. Our job was to hold meetings, and when people like Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhulabhai Desai, Vijaylakshmi Pandit and other leaders went to London, we held receptions in their honour. There was Krishna Menon of the India League, which we joined and became very active in.
The CPGB was small but really supported our independence. The party organised classes for us. During holidays, if we did not go abroad, students from Oxford, Cambridge and other universities used to meet. Harold Laski was there, a fine orator and speaker. So was Palme Dutt and his brother Clemens Dutt. Palme Dutt was well-informed on developments in India, and was in charge of India reporting for the Third International. It was through him that we knew what was happening there.
All these events influenced me.
You were on the frontlines of the action during those eventful years of the 1940s that saw the final push for independence. Would you describe those years and the role played by the Left in the winning of Independence, especially in Bengal?
I returned to Calcutta on January 1, 1940 and became a member of the party two days later. The Second World War had started in 1939. I had finished the first part of my law degree. I wrote the second part in December, and returned without waiting for my results. In Calcutta I heard that I had got through.
Our party wanted to use me to keep contact with the underground party. I used to do all kinds of work — based on the platform of the Students Federation, I used to speak at meetings, go to different places to keep contacts, and so on.
Our party knew that the Congress was leading the freedom movement everywhere, including Bengal. And so some of our top leaders — not me of course, but Muzaffar Ahmad and others — were also members of the Congress. Our party used to work amongst the peasants and the workers mostly.
When the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany in 1941, we had a lot of discussion in the party and came to the conclusion, like the CPGB, that the imperialist war had become a People’s War and we would support the Allied war effort. Our poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was alive then, and he was very upset at the attack on the Soviet Union. He had been to the Soviet Union and had been welcomed there. He was almost on his death-bed, but he said that the Soviets must never lose, as without them civilisation in the world was threatened. With his support and blessings we formed the Friends of the Soviet Union of which I was the general secretary. That platform helped us.
The British released many of us from jail because at that time we did not support the 1942 Quit India movement. We said that fascism must be defeated and we would not engage in actions that would adversely affect the war effort. Nehru and others said that they too were anti-fascist, but without freedom they could not fight fascism. The Quit India call was given by Gandhi. Our party could fortunately work legally for three or four years.
Because we did not support the 1942 movement, we got completely isolated from the people. But in 1943, the Great Bengal Famine came, and with our little organisation (when I joined, the party had only 5,000 members), we worked for the famine-stricken people in the villages and towns. Thirty lakhs died because of famine. Although our work made us popular and our strength increased, we continued to be isolated politically.
In 1944, my party asked me to do trade union work. I first worked for the port and dock union. I then started building a railway union in the Bengal Assam Railway. We built a powerful union, the B.N. Railway Workers Union. In 1946, I got elected from the Railway Constituency to the government formed by the Muslim League under Suhrawardy.
The riots of 1946, the likes of which we had never seen, broke out. August 16, 1946 was Direct Action Day. In seven or eight days thousands of people — men, women and children — had been killed. I have never seen anything like that. When Suhrawardy thought it was getting out of hand, he wanted to organise a peace committee. The Communists were in the forefront of the campaign for peace.
Then came 1947, and Independence. We had our second party congress and B.T. Ranadive became general secretary after P.C. Joshi. Mohan Kumaramangalam was also with us and spoke at the meeting. I was against the resolution passed on the political situation, which I thought was ultra-left.
The Left played a very decisive role in the freedom movement. In 1946, the naval ratings in Bombay went on strike. The British Admiral said that unless the ratings joined duty within 24 hours he would bomb rebel ships from above. We had a political strike for 24 hours in the railways during this time.
What has been the impact of land reform on the lives of the peasantry?
The peasants had been demanding two-thirds of the share of the produce. So a very big movement took place in which we played a major role. Soon after the panchayats were formed, we could not find the land documents. The landlords (jotedars) had distributed land in various names, even to their cats and dogs! The Kisan Sabha helped us in this big struggle for land distribution. They said that if land documents could not be found, it did not matter, as they knew which land belonged to whom. By 1978, we had distributed surplus land and enforced the rule of two-thirds of the share. This was Operation Barga. It was a great success.
With the improvement in agricultural production, thanks to land reform and the panchayats, peasants have been getting two and three crops on their land. On single-crop land a peasant family found it difficult to manage, and the members had to find other work to supplement the family’s income. This has brought a fundamental change in their situation. We were also helped by mass organisations, because we had been saying that the party alone cannot do everything, they cannot bring about change without mass organisations that we must be in contact with. So we have the biggest mass organisation of workers, peasants, middle class organisations, students and teachers.
How do you think the successes in agriculture and industry can be taken forward by the Left Front government?
Well, we are the first amongst the States in agricultural production, social forestry and fisheries. After Uttar Pradesh we have the highest potato production. In industrial development, most of the governments in Delhi discriminated against us. For 40 years there was freight equalisation of steel, iron and coal, the raw material for building factories. This means that States 2,000 miles away pay the same rate for iron and steel as West Bengal.
This is all right for five to ten years as other States too need industrialisation. But later on, because of our pressure the Central government did away with that. The Planning Commission concentrated on a few States for industrial development, like Karnataka, Maharasthra and Tamil Nadu, and did not look at States like West Bengal and the small States in the north-eastern region. Industrialists who wanted to set up industry in Bengal were discouraged by the Central government. They were told that the agreement would be signed only if the industry was to be located in a State other than Bengal. So that kind of thing happened for years together.
We adopted an economic policy in which we interacted with industrialists. We told them that it is because of the workers they are making profits. We told them not to look down on the workers, but to discuss production and the objectives of production with them. We also told workers not to give up their right to strike, but to keep that as the last option. They could discuss their problems with the management, and if that failed, the government and the Labour Minister would hear their case. So in many cases strikes were averted because the government worked out tripartite agreements. Now more investments are coming and are likely to come. Our Ministers are going abroad seeking investments.
Our 1994 policy on foreign capital, which we placed before the Assembly, states that if it is in our interest, we do not mind foreign capital investment. Since this is a capitalist system, the private sector has a big role to play.
What is your policy on disinvestment in West Bengal?
We have said that profitable industries should not be disinvested. We have our State sector undertakings. There are some sick industries, abandoned by the owners. Unfortunately, we had to take them over and pay the workers, and try to revive some of them. So we have not given up all the sick industries of which I think there are about 80. Our Industries Minister is trying to see how they can be revived. If they cannot be revived, we are going to sell them if we find buyers.
We are sure that if we come back to power again, in the next five years, we will be the leading State in industrialisation in India.
Would you say that the Left Front has provided an alternative model of government for India?
The Left Front government has provided an alternative model of government. We don’t hide anything from the people. We tell them why we have been able to implement only part of our programme.
What do you see as the reasons for the relatively slow growth of the Communist movement outside of the three States of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura?
West Bengal is not India. We have three governments in the country. We lost the last elections in Kerala, but I think this time we are going to win. Tripura is a very small State of just 33 lakh people in which lots of refugees have come and the tribals have become a minority. To keep them together is a great achievement. However, in our last party congress we said that to expand we cannot depend only on these three States.
We first thought — at least I thought — that the experience of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura would result in the automatic expansion of the party in other States. People would be enthused by the experience of these States. But unfortunately that has not happened. So now the new Polit Bureau is chalking out a programme of where we are weak, and how we must expand.
The expansion of the party and of the mass organisations are both needed.
What explains the near total absence of women in the leadership of the Left movement, both during the freedom struggle and now? Has this historical weakness impeded the growth of the Communist movement?
Yes, that is our negative feature. We did not pay attention to that. This time in the party congress we have taken note of the importance of women not only in the panchayats but in the party leadership, and in the mass organisation leadership. In fact, our experience about their work in the panchayats is very good. They are very sincere about their work. They work at home, look after the children and then go to the office. So we should take advantage of that and see that the Women’s Reservation Bill that the BJP had stalled is passed in the winter session of Parliament.
So you think this weakness is now being overcome.
Yes, I think so, as women are coming more and more into the mass organisations and the leadership of the party.
Has the communist movement in India failed to address effectively the issues of caste and caste-based oppression?
We have not paid sufficient attention to caste. Most of the working people are not organised in trade unions, not even in West Bengal. The party and trade unions together can bring about changes in the political situation and in the hold of caste. There is still untouchability in Tamil Nadu, and we have not looked into that. We are trying to correct all this. Let us see what happens in the next three years.
Now that you have retired from active politics are you able to do things that you did not have time for earlier? Like bringing your memoirs up to date, for example?
At this age and with my health, I cannot do much work. What I used to do earlier I cannot do now. That is why I asked the party to relieve me of all duties, but they refused. They asked me to stay on.
So, man is born, he grows old, he dies. I am happy about West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura, and I hope that we shall implement the programme our party has taken up for the next three years.