In memoriam

Indrajit Gupta – gentleman comrade

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HOW does one write about a colossus? Especially one who has just left us? My memories of ‘Comrade Indrajit’ go back to the summer of 1973 when I first met him. Like other student activists, I was in awe of the great man. A First from Kings College, Cambridge, who like his contemporaries Jyoti Basu, Mohan Kumaramangalam and N.K. Krishnan had become a communist under the influence of the legendary Rajni Palme Dutt, Indrajit returned to India to become a firebrand trade union leader, and later the greatest parliamentarian in Indian history.

Indrajit Gupta served as a Member of Parliament from 1960, with a break only from 1977 to 1980 when he lost as a consequence of the CPI’s pro-Emergency policies. In Parliament, he was known for his erudition, his painstaking preparation and his wit, together making for a devastating display of oratory. Taken as a whole, his speeches will amount to the most sustained and cogent presentation of popular issues and demands made in the Indian Parliament. Civil to the core, he was never one to breach decorum or storm the well of the House. Even as Home Minister, when the Congress objected to a statement that he had made, Indrajit after some reflection had no hesitation in standing up and apologizing. It is a recognition of his unparalleled contribution that even the Shiv Sena, implacable enemy to the communists, joined others to demand a memorial to Indrajit inside the Parliament’s premises, and political rival and minister Nitish Kumar urged that his speeches be published as a guide for all new MPs.

But Indrajit was above all a very decent and considerate human being. At our first meeting he asked me about myself. Learning about my family, whom he knew and my upbringing, he was surprised and said that not many public school boys joined the Left movement in the seventies. ‘But all of you went to Cambridge,’ I said. ‘Those were different times, a time of revolutionary ferment just after the Great Depression. But I’m happy boys like you still join us.’ In 1974, during the railway strike, JNU students had blockaded roads and fought a pitched battle with the police. When the CPI state leadership criticized the students, Indrajit loudly dissented and praised the solidarity with the railwaymen displayed by the students. ‘How can you criticize students who face the police for the workers?’

But Indrajit was a realist. When asked about my future plans on our first meeting, I said I wanted to be a full-time trade union activist, he dissuaded me. ‘Take your time. It is difficult for young comrades to deal with the demands of the TU bureaucracy. Become a good student. The movement needs good intellectuals.’ Thereafter, almost every time I met him, Indrajit would ask questions about the work of left intellectuals. He was a practical parliamentarian. When we criticized neoliberal economic reforms, he invariably asked: what is the alternative? When a couple of years ago, I gave him copies of the radical Alternative Economic Survey, he asked, ‘Where is the alternative?’ When I mentioned some alternate policies suggested, he was dismissive: ‘That’s just a wish list. You will have to be more concrete.’

When he was Home Minister, I met Indrajit to complain about a feeling that he was not forcing his policies through. ‘Be a communist, not a gentleman,’ I pleaded with him. ‘Who told you communists should not be gentlemen? We are not gentlemen of privilege, but gentlemen of the people,’ he replied.

Now that the dreaded cancer has laid low this gentle colossus, let us never forget this ‘gentleman of the people’, who gave his all till the very end for his people and country.

Kamal Mitra Chenoy