Ashok Mitra (1928-2018)
IN the middle 1990s when Ashok Mitra came to the Rajya Sabha to represent the Communist Party of India (Marxist), he decided to become a member of the India International Centre. I was a bit surprised as I had assumed that he was already a member, having lived and worked in Delhi holding very important positions in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. When I expressed my surprise to him, Mitra said, ‘With Romesh Thapar in charge I didn’t bother about being a member of IIC; we were the establishment.’ That statement contained two elements of truth.
Ashok Mitra was close to Romesh and Raj Thapar and thus to Seminar from the time the Thapars lived in Bombay. There were two links to this closeness. One, was ideology: the Thapars and Mitra saw themselves as belonging to the left and with strong associations with the undivided communist party in the 1950s. Their circle consisted of educated and enlightened people who were fired by the idealism to build a new India that would be fair and just. The other link was Sachin Chaudhuri, the founder-editor of The Economic Weekly, whose flat in Bombay, in Churchill Chambers, behind the Taj Mahal Hotel, was Mitra’s home in Mumbai. Chaudhuri, as any reader of Raj Thapar’s memoir knows, was very close to the Thapars.
It was the idealism mentioned above and the commitment to the spirit of free discussion and debate that made Romesh and Raj start Seminar. It was entirely apposite that Ashok Mitra was associated with Seminar from the moment of its birth. He was very fond of recalling that the first time he saw the Thapar children – Mala and Valu – they were kids, just out of their toddler years, but they had been given the task by their parents of sticking on postage stamps and address labels on packets carrying the first issue of Seminar. I heard Mitra narrate this anecdote more than once with great delight and he never failed to point out how Seminar began as a small-scale family enterprise. He admired the Thapars for their commitment and idealism. The association with the Thapars was symbolized, as it were, in the fact that for many years Mitra and Thapar wrote regular columns for Economic and Political Weekly – Calcutta Diary by AM and Capital Diary by Romesh Thapar.
Ashok Mitra was a late and fortuitous entrant into the Delhi establishment. He had grown up in Dacca, taken a Masters in Economics from BHU and had completed his doctoral degree with Jan Tinbergen in Rotterdam. He did stints with the World Bank in Washington, DC and with the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in Bangkok. When the Indian Institute of Management was set up in Calcutta, Mitra joined it and with the freedom given to him by the Director, K.T. Chandy, he brought together a formidable academic team from diverse disciplines. It was from IIMC that Mitra came to Delhi, first as the Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission and then as the Chief Economic Advisor, Government of India. In both positions, he worked in tandem with P.N. Haksar, then the principal secretary to Indira Gandhi. Haksar became a lifelong friend.
This was in the late 1960s and the first years of the 1970s – the high noon of Indira Gandhi’s left phase. She sought, in this period, the advice of a group of left-leaning intellectuals, politicians and bureaucrats. Ashok Mitra was one of them; as was Haksar of course, the Thapars and Mohan Kumaramangalam. It was to this coterie that Mitra referred when he said, ‘We were the establishment.’ It was during these years that his friendship with Romesh and Raj Thapar came to be cemented. The opposition to the Emergency in the middle of the 1970s brought the three of them even closer.
In 1970-71, Mitra’s Dacca connections enabled him to play a critical role in the campaign that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Scholars, academics, writers and others fleeing from the oppression let loose by Yahya Khan’s regime in East Pakistan found a haven in Ashok Mitra’s house in Lodhi Estate in Delhi. Mitra would put these individuals in touch with Haksar who thus had first-hand accounts of what was actually happening in East Pakistan. Many of them would be given a new identity so that they could travel to western capitals and university campuses where they served as informal ambassadors of the emerging nation state called Bangladesh.
Ashok Mitra’s home in Lodhi Estate was an open house for many. Young men, with extreme Maoist leanings, fearing arrest and torture in West Bengal would take refuge in the Mitra household. Over weekends, especially in the winter, Mrs Mitra would lay out a spread in the garden and all were welcome to drop in for lunch and adda. Unobtrusively – and that word is used advisedly – Mrs Mitra (or Gouridi as she was known to many of us) had entered the narrative. She was a quiet but an extremely important presence in Ashok Mitra’s life. She was his anchor. Her untimely death in May 2008 left him utterly bereft, without any zeal to live. He waited ten years for his death till time embraced him this May 1, the very day it had claimed Gouri Mitra.
A large part of Ashok Mitra’s career was occupied with writing for a wider reading public. This was perhaps his real forte. He had an unerring eye for the relevant subject and wrote in enviable prose in English and Bengali on politics, economics, literature and culture. He was at his best when he penned portraits of men and women he had met and interacted with. Reviewing a collection that brought together pieces that had appeared in the Calcutta Diary, the historian Ranajit Guha, then in the University of Sussex, expressed the wish that when he died in ‘a grey and alien land’, Mitra would pen his obituary. He was closely connected with a number of magazines and journals. The most important of these was The Economic Weekly and later the Economic and Political Weekly. Samar Sen’s Now and then Frontier were very close to Mitra’s heart as was Samar Sen himself. In Bengal in his youth Mitra had been close to a group of young poets like Arun Sarkar and to Buddhadev Bose. His recall of lines from his favourite poets was astounding. In the twilight of his life, he began to edit a journal called Arek Rakam that articulated different points of view on a variety of issues. He was a regular columnist for The Telegraph as long as Aveek Sarkar was the chief editor of the ABP group.
Ashok Mitra continued to write till a few days before his death. He was severely critical of all that he saw around him in Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal and Narendra Modi’s India. There were two essays he especially wanted to write. One was for Seminar: an essay on the CPI(M) which he wanted to call, ‘How to Destroy a Party’. The other was the obituary that Ranajit Guha had wished for. Mitra wanted to write this and store it away for future use. Failing health, fading eyesight and loss of hearing prevented him from writing them.
Ashok Mitra was a loyal friend. Ideological differences did not stand in the way of his friendships. He was particularly fond of younger people and showered them with affection. He could also be profoundly philosophical about his friendships and affections. He wrote with great poignancy in his memoirs, ‘A rule of life we have to abide by is that those who were once close, grow apart, those who were distant, come closer.’ This realization perhaps came to him when his erstwhile comrades dropped him when he marked his distance from the party.
Ashok Mitra’s voice was unique in its dissent. He served as the finance minister of West Bengal under the Left Front. But when this position clashed with his own beliefs, he resigned. Power did not attract Mitra. His independence, his right to dissent and his affections were to him paramount.
A friend, cosmopolitan polymath, yet a stubborn Bengali at heart
IN the 1960s, Calcutta’s intellectual fireplace was stoked up by two Ashok Mitras. The senior one (who spelt his first name as Asoke) was a retired ICS officer (from the dwindling days of British colonial rule, but with leftist leanings), who after retirement devoted his time to art history (coming up with some wonderful Bengali books on western and Indian art, and engaged in literary criticism). Unlike his urban westernized upper class upbringing, the junior Mitra came from the humble surroundings of a provincial town called Dacca (now known as Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh) where he was brought up in the 1920s. Ashok Mitra, in his autobiography A Prattler’s Tale, describes how he faced discrimination when he came to Calcutta to seek admission to the Calcutta University because of his semi-urban semi-rural background. Despite these class differences, in later years both the Mitras could share a common intellectual space spanning journals, public debates, private correspondence – and more importantly the ubiquitous oral encounter known as the Bengali adda. Recognized as a distinct institution, ‘adda’ is a lazy, long-drawn session over tea or coffee or drinks, which is a rambling over everything under the sun – from local politics to the latest gossip about a popular film star.
The Mitras quite often met at the adda in the house of Samar Sen, the poet-turned radical editor of NOW and later Frontier, in Swinhoe Street in South Calcutta in the mid-1960s. Here, at times, I also happened to drop in, as a junior member of this enchanting circle, to listen to their scintillating debates over contemporary politics, interspersed with funny anecdotes from their colourful past.
In those tumultuous days of the 1960s in Calcutta, there was another Ashok to add to our excitement – Ashok Rudra, a young Marxist economist who had been writing in Bengali and English periodicals, challenging prevalent shibboleths in both economics and politics in a virulent style. So, the joke that made the rounds in Coffee House and other joints was : ‘There are three Ashoks in Calcutta – Dhala Ashok, Kala Ashok and Chanda Ashok’ – the first, the senior ex-ICS Asoke described as dhala (fair skinned), the second Ashok Mitra as kala (dark skinned), and the third Ashok Rudra as ‘Chanda Ashok’ (recalling Emperor Ashoka’s reputation as an iconoclast in his military campaigns before he embraced Buddhism). When together in an adda, they all shared a hearty laughter over the joke.
Of the three, ‘Kala Ashok’ was closest to me. To begin on a personal note, I came to know about him through Samar Sen, who in the mid-1960s, had started the journal NOW, which had a brief tenure. Ashok Mitra at that time (a senior official in the Union government’s Finance Ministry, posted in Delhi) used to write a regular column for NOW under the pseudonym ‘Charan Gupta’. The column usually critiqued the government’s policies, and occasionally exposed some scams – of which he must have known. Only a few among us in Samar Sen’s close circle knew about the identity of the contributor. In the old issues of NOW, one may find Charan Gupta’s columns rubbing shoulders with my occasional brief political commentaries or reviews of art exhibitions.
I came closer to Ashok Mitra when I moved to New Delhi in 1967 (as a correspondent of The Statesman newspaper), when he was already installed there as the Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission. His Lodhi Estate bungalow was a centre of our evening addas in those days. Recently, after his death, a few days ago, as I was sifting through old letters and pictures, I suddenly came across a photograph of our 1969 wedding ceremony in Delhi showing a youngish looking Ashok Mitra, clad in his usual dhoti and Bengali collarless kurta (peculiarly enough called ‘punjabi’), beaming at me and Bizeth. He was always very fond of us and affectionate towards me – all through the various ups and downs in our lives.
Delhi in those days was on the cusp of a political upheaval. The newly elected Lok Sabha represented a variety of opposition political parties who were ruling different states, and thus posed a challenge to the hitherto monopoly of Congress rule. Indira Gandhi tried to face this challenge by refurbishing her party – by getting rid of the deadwood, and announcing populist measures. The 1969 split in the Congress marked the expulsion of the old guard and the emergence of the Young Turks who persuaded Indira Gandhi to come up with steps like end to privy purses, bank nationalization and other populist measures. She sacked the conservative finance minister Morarji Desai, and herself took over the portfolio.
The next year, in 1970, Ashok Mitra was offered the job of chief economic adviser in the ministry of finance. To quote him from his autobiography: ‘…my friends and political mentors were strongly of the opinion that I should not reject the offer… [since] I would be in a position to frustrate … right wing manipulations [of reactionary civil servants… ].’ But he soon realized: ‘Thanks to the confusing developments all around, even a congenital cynic like me began to indulge in foolish dreams.’ (A Prattler’s Tale, p. 236). He watched from close quarters Indira Gandhi’s steady rise as an authoritarian ruler through Machiavellian tricks. Repulsed by her ruthless plans to decimate the communists in West Bengal, he was on the point of resigning, but for the events in East Pakistan in 1971. He felt that he should stay back to make use of his official position to give protection to leaders and fighters of the Bangladeshi liberation war who had taken shelter in India. Some of them were put up in his Lodhi Estate official residence in those days.
Soon after the 1971 victory over Bangladesh, which elevated Indira Gandhi to the position of an empress-cum-goddess, ‘All of Delhi was reeking with the grisly odour of flattery [of Indira Gandhi]’, and to quote from his autobiography, Ashok Mitra felt that ‘it was impossible for one of my temperament to continue in that sickeningly nauseating milieu.’ The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the West Bengal assembly elections held in 1972 under the aegis of Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the notorious Congress advisor of Indira Gandhi (who was later to urge her to impose Emergency in 1975). These elections were marked by widespread violence against left candidates and rigged to enable the Congress to capture power in the state. Ashok Mitra immediately resigned putting in his papers, and straightaway came down to Calcutta with his luggage.
The period that followed was a roller-coaster journey for him. Living in Calcutta from mid-1972 to mid-1975, he meticulously recorded the depredations of the Congress-led fascist goons there, and sent his findings in weekly despatches to Economic and Political Weekly, which used to come out in a column called ‘Calcutta Diary’ under the signature AM. (A collection of those despatches was to be published later in a book entitled The Hoodlum Years). But after the declaration of Emergency in June 1975 and the press censorship imposed soon after, there was no scope for Ashok Mitra to write or speak. Luckily enough, he received an invitation from Sussex University asking him to be a visiting fellow for a year (through the initiative of his young friend Amartya Sen, which he acknowledges in his autobiography).
True to his character, Ashok Mitra, as in the past when he agreed to accept the post of the chief economic advisor in the government after receiving approval from his leftist mentors then, this time also, he approached the CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu, who advised him to accept the offer, since he could take an active part in the anti-Emergency movement that was rapidly taking shape among the Indian diaspora abroad – which he did indeed during his stay there. He came back to Calcutta in 1977, and was soon drawn into the vortex of the post-Emergency politics, winning elections and being appointed the finance minister in two consecutive Left Front cabinets – 1977-82 and the one that followed. Both the tenures were marked by some reforms which he brought about in the financial sector, but were also marred by his bitter experiences with an obdurate bureaucracy and an equally obstinate CPI(M) leadership, which finally led him to resign from the cabinet in 1986.
But he continued to have an ambivalent relationship with the CPI(M), as evident from his agreeing to be the party nominee in the Rajya Sabha in 1993. Even after the completion of that term, he maintained a sort of love-hate relationship with the party. In private conversations with friends like me, he nursed hopes that the CPI(M) leadership of West Bengal could be reformed, and its organization purged of the depoliticized hooligan cadres who were bringing down the party’s reputation by their rampages in the cities and villages. His efforts to persuade his comrades in the party leadership to change their ways, however, turned out to be another of the many ‘foolish dreams’ that he had indulged in during his earlier days in the party which he describes in his autobiography.
He therefore charted out a different path by bringing out a Bengali fortnightly called Arek Rakom (meaning ‘a different type’) in 2012, from his Alipur Road residence in Kolkata. Within a few years it became a platform for the exchange of different voices from left and other dissidents, ranging from Maoists to environmentalists, from feminists to transgender groups. In its pages also, Ashok Mitra till his death, often harked back in a lighter vein to his past and offered us entertaining nuggets about his personal experiences with national politicians and bureaucrats, as well as with his own party leaders – sometimes happy, sometimes leaving a bitter taste in the mouth.
One such bitter taste with which he departed was his sad experience with the Sameeksha Trust which he himself with others set up in 1966 to publish the journal Economic and Political Weekly, which was to gain worldwide reputation. Sadly enough, in 2017, the trustees succumbed to threats by an industrial house and unceremoniously sacked the editor of the journal. Shocked by the event, Ashok Mitra came out with a letter, dated 31 July 2017, addressed to the Sameeksha Trust chairman, Deepak Nayar and his colleague, D.N. Ghosh (both of whom having been nominated by him to the board). Referring to the incident, Ashok Mitra stated in the letter: ‘The trustees are supposed to protect the sovereignty of editorial policies from interference from any quarters. It is ironical that the present trustees have decided to do precisely the reverse of the original purpose for establishing the trust.’
Suggesting a few changes in the relationship between the trustees and the EPW editorial team, Ashok Mitra ended his letter by reminding the two addressees: ‘I hope you will take this advice from an old man who was involved in founding the trust and the journal and has spent a significant part of his life in helping to strengthen the EPW. My decision to invite the two of you to join the trust was based on my belief that you will do exactly that.’
We expect that the ‘two’ along with the other trustees will live up to Ashok Mitra’s belief and hope.
Remembering a humanist
Rajindar Sachar (1923-2018)
I had not met Justice Sachar before I became part of the Sachar Committee. Of course, I had read about his contributions to civil society through his significant work on human rights. My mental image of him was that of a very serious, somewhat officious, legal luminary. Therefore, when I went to Delhi for the first meeting of the committee I was not expecting to meet a sprightly old man, full of warmth, jest and compassion. But he was just that – a warm, compassionate person with a sense of humour and full of energy and verve. Even in our first meeting, he made me feel as if I had known him for years. And that feeling remained with me throughout our interactions in the subsequent years.
My first meeting with him was a brief one when I met him alone, just before the first formal meeting of the Sachar Committee. I remember two things from that meeting. He was full of praise for IIMs in general and IIM, Ahmedabad in particular, which he thought were keeping the flag of Indian higher education high. He also told me, interestingly with a sort of a wink, that I was the youngest member of the committee and the younger members do all the work in such committees. I was not sure how to react to these comments, so just mumbled something in response. I did not realize at the time that I was embarking on one of the most important learning experiences of my academic life and Justice Sachar’s stewardship would play a critical role in that process.
The other thing that I remember about our first formal meeting was Justice Sachar’s insistence that the committee should finish its work in the stipulated time and not seek extensions. If I remember right, that was probably the first thing he said as a part of his initial remarks. Therefore, he was quite upset when we had to seek a six month extension as some critical data had not been made available in time, but was pleased that we did not need to ask for any more extensions.
It was a pleasure to work as a member of the committee as Justice Sachar carried all of us along. Of course, there were differences on a variety of issues, but he insisted that we talk about them openly. At times, I would get upset with the pace of work or its direction and shoot off a long email to him. He would never respond to me through emails. Initially I thought that it had something to do with his inability to deal adequately with ‘new technologies’, but subsequently realized that he believed in face-to-face interaction, although part of me still feels that he did not wish to have some of those interactions documented on paper. None of us knew at the time that all the relevant papers of the committee could be available in the public domain and were somewhat surprised when he suggested that we put them in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library so that other researchers could benefit from them. All of us agreed that this was an excellent idea; it also occurred to me that our interactions would have made ‘interesting’ reading for researchers if all that was discussed was available in email exchanges.
Many of us in the committee had significant first-hand experience of the conditions of Muslims in India. Our mandate was to provide a data-based analysis of the socio-economic and educational conditions of the community. Justice Sachar ensured that we stay true to that mandate. There were several experiences that were part of the lived reality of some committee members and others with whom we interacted but for which we did not have concrete data. Consequently, the Sachar Committee Report (SCR) did not focus on those issues as sharply as was probably required, though a chapter was included in the report to capture these ‘perceptions’ and raise critical issues arising out of them. While some commentators have highlighted this lacunae, I personally am of the opinion that the credibility of the SCR remains much higher than it might have been had we moved away from the mandate of large data-based analysis. Equally, the credit for this almost entirely goes to Justice Sachar as he managed counter perspectives very well.
As a member of the committee, I was often asked if there were any government pressures. I would once in a while hear rumours in the committee office regarding certain ‘suggestions’ that may have been made by the Prime Minister’s Office. I do not know where these rumours emanated from and I am also not aware of any such suggestions from the PMO. But if there was any such thing, Justice Sachar kept these entirely to himself. At no time during the tenure of the committee did such issues even get mentioned in the deliberations. The committee worked with complete autonomy and independence.
After the SCR was submitted, my interaction with Justice Sachar was very infrequent and usually happened when I visited Delhi. Most times we met at the India International Centre, where he hosted me for lunch. As I look back, in every such meeting, there were a few common themes. His curiosity was insatiable. He would always ask me about what was happening in IIMA and my ongoing research. I used to feel quite foolish if I was not doing anything significant and did not have much to ‘report’. Invariably, he would ask about my wife and our daughter. He showed a lot of interest in their work and well-being. I think he did the same for everybody around him.
The current affairs would get discussed in these meetings and invariably he would rue the lack of informed debate on the findings of the SCR and how, as a consequence, several myths continue to prosper and grow. For instance, the bogey of Muslim population growth being so high that they would soon outnumber Hindus, the common refrain that all Muslim children go to madrasas for education where they get indoctrinated. Both these myths are busted in the SCR but so far civil society has not made use of these findings to initiate a more meaningful discussion. Justice Sachar was quite upset about it.
The politics around the SCR has ensured that several empirical and analytical insights of the report have gone largely unnoticed, both by academics and civil society. For example, despite their relative poverty, lack of education, and poorer public provisioning of facilities, infant and child mortality among Muslims is lower than in other communities and the sex – female to male – ratio is higher. Moreover, both these sets of indices have been improving faster for Muslims than for others in recent years despite the slower rates of improvement in other development indices. Muslims are clearly doing a better job of beti bachao than other socio-religious groups in India. I am sure Justice Sachar would be very happy if politicians of all denominations used the SCR findings to bring out such interesting features of our society.
I should have interacted with him more. His positivity and energy were contagious. I will always remember him as an extremely warm and kind person – a true humanist. May his soul rest in peace.