Com. Prakash Karat
General Secretary, CPI(M)
THE birth centenary of an outstanding Communist leader like Jyoti Basu should be an occasion to make an appraisal of the significant contributions made through the life and work of the leader and to draw up a balance sheet of the lessons and achievements of his political career. It must then be used to educate the new generation of Communists and progressives, so that it helps them in their ongoing endeavour for a social transformation.
Jyoti Basu became a legend as a Communist leader in his life time. No other leader of the Communist movement was known and respected by the people all over the country as much as Jyoti Basu. How did this come about?
Jyoti Basu’s name was synonymous with all the major currents of Left politics and the basic class movements. Throughout his life as a Communist, he was associated with the working class movement. After he came back from Britain, he joined the Communist Party and straight away began work in the railway workers trade union. Till his last years, he remained a leader of the CITU.
He became a symbol of the peasant movement when he utilised the United Front government of 1967-70 to unleash the land struggles and when he, as chief minister of the Left Front government, undertook the extreme land reform measures. So his political activity involved both the worker and peasant movements.
One of the distinctive contributions of Jyoti Basu was the way he integrated work in the legislature with the people's movements and workers struggles outside. Jyoti Basu was elected to the Bengal legislature from a railway constituency in 1946 before independence. From then onwards, for more than five decades, he effectively utilised his presence in the legislature for developing and strengthening the Party's influence and movements outside. When the Tebhaga movement of the peasantry began in 1947, Jyoti Basu extensively toured the districts where the movement was taking place for a first hand report and raised the issue effectively in the assembly.
In 1953, he became the secretary of the Provincial Committee of the CPI and continued in this post till 1961. During these eight years, big movements took place such as the food movement of 1959 in which 80 people were killed in police firing and lathicharges. Jyoti Basu, as secretary of the Party, was in the forefront of this movement while relentlessly raising the demands of the people on food inside the assembly.
Earlier, when the school teachers' strike took place in February 1954, many leaders of the school teachers association and the Party were arrested. There was a warrant for the arrest of Jyoti Basu and the police kept a vigil outside the assembly on the opening day of the session to arrest him. Jyoti Basu managed to enter the assembly and stayed for around a week inside the premises where the police could not enter. He was able to raise the issue of the teachers strike inside the assembly and came out to attend the teachers rally and got arrested. Here was a striking example of how Jyoti Basu, as a legislator, utilised the assembly to champion the cause of the working people.
Jyoti Basu was a man of great personal courage. In July 1969, when he was the home minister, a mob of policeman invaded the assembly building, having been instigated to do so after a policeman was killed in a clash. They smashed up furniture inside the assembly and entered Jyoti Basu's room. Jyoti Basu calmly faced the rampaging policemen and firmly told them to stop such behaviour. Taken aback by his composure, the policemen quietly left his room.
It was Jyoti Basu who showed how Communist participation in the state government should be utilised to strengthen the democratic movement. During the two stints of the United Front government between 1967-1970, as the home minister, he did not allow the police to intervene in the struggles of the workers and the peasants. During the land struggle which swept West Bengal, Jyoti Basu declared that the government would not obstruct the peasants who were identifying the benami lands and taking them over. It is this experience which helped the CPI(M) to formulate its approach and tactics while working in the state governments.
The biggest contribution of Jyoti Basu came with the formation of the Left Front government in 1977, of which he became the chief minister. The remarkable record of the Left Front government for over three decades owes a lot to Jyoti Basu's leadership of the government for an unbroken 23 years. It was under his stewardship that the road map for land reforms was chalked out and implemented. These path-breaking reforms led to 1.1 million acres of land being distributed to 2.5 million landless and marginal farmers and 1.53 million bargadars (sharecroppers) being registered and provided security of tenure.
Side by side with the land reforms, the three-tier panchayat system revitalised by decentralisation of powers was instituted. Much before the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, West Bengal showed the way in democratising the panchayat system.
An achievement which is taken for granted today is the establishment of a secular atmosphere in the state. Bengal, before independence, witnessed the rise of communal politics and partition saw large-scale communal violence. But the advance of the Left movement and the establishment of the Left Front government laid the basis for a major transformation. Jyoti Basu symbolised the firm adherence to secularism not only in West Bengal but the entire country. All minorities felt protected and lived free from communal attacks. The whole country praised the firm stand of Jyoti Basu which prevented any attack on the Sikh minority in West Bengal after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
Semi-fascist terror was unleashed in West Bengal during the 1970s. More than 1200 comrades were killed during this period and thousands were forced to leave their homes. Repression by the class enemies have to be faced by the Communist movement at various times. How successfully such repression and violence is faced determines the future of the movement. Under the leadership of Jyoti Basu and Promode Dasgupta, the Party withstood this severe attack and did not get isolated from the people. Today, when the Party and the Left Front is again facing severe attacks in West Bengal, the example of Jyoti Basu’s mature leadership at such a juncture should be a guiding light.
For seven decades, Jyoti Basu as a Communist saw various ups and downs in the international Communist movement. But his commitment to Marxism never wavered. Till the end he believed that socialism is the only alternative for humanity.
In the practice and development of the Communist movement in India, Jyoti Basu played a key role in many aspects. On how Communists should work in legislatures; in implementing land reforms; in decentralising power through the panchayati raj system; in defending secularism and democracy. Few leaders in independent India can claim to have contributed to defending the rights of the working people, deepening democracy and strengthening the secular principle as much as Jyoti Basu has done.
The year long birth centenary celebrations should commemorate this glorious life and work.