January 14, 2009


KOLKATA: Another link has been snapped between the pre-independence Bengal Left-led revolutionary movement against colonialism and the Communist struggle, with the passing away of comrade Sailesh Chaudhuri, a member, until recently and until a fell disease rendered him physically challenged, on the board of editors of the weekly organ of the Bengal CPI (M) Deshahitaishee. State secretary of the Bengal CPI (M) Biman Basu presently in Purulia, and Ashok Bandyopadhyay, present editor of the weekly among others have condoled the departed comrade’s passing away.

Born in the former East Pakistan on November 25 1925, comrade Sailesh became a Party member at a tender young age in the year 1941. He developed himself theoretically and in the fields of struggle, bit by tiny bit, until he was a soldier of the then CPI, and the CPI (M)) -- after the united Party split in 1964.

A comrade who hated the word ‘journalist’ to be appended to his name and reputation (which was considerable), comrade Sailesh remained a ‘reporter,’ until he was rendered incapacitated. We recall the fiery decade of the 1970s when comrade Sailesh was found by us reporting on the jute strike from the now-sick Gondolpara jute mill in the heart of bustling Chandernagore in Hooghly, living his life amongst the chatkal mazdoors, mingling with them, sharing the considerable burden of their lives as lay-offs increased by quantum leaps – and the mazdoors under the Chatkal Mazdoor Union would not give up. This trend of comrade Sailesh’s style of reportage continued until the recent Panchayat polls when he would roam the districts and watch the rural bodies in action.

No wonder, his reportage had the stamp of field-level authenticity-- something that the corporate media has always lacked, sitting as they do in the comfort of their cubicles and weaving anti-Communist stories to their hearts contents-- and facts be darned. Comrade Sailesh wrote in simple language divested of linguistic callisthenics, and was never a show off although he was by any standard a ‘star’ reporter, an asset to any media, Communist or otherwise, if only for the hard factual reporting he would exult in.

We consider it to have been our privilege to work with comrade Sailesh for three decades or more, especially during the period I wrote in the decade of the 1980s, a foreign affairs column in the Deshahitaishee. A soothing but consistent critic of my contributions especially to PD, comrade Sailesh never had a harsh word for me except to say that I needed to tone my ‘revolutionary’ zeal down to the softness of the earth where harsh battles are fought and where such conflicts shall continued to be fought until the farther goals are achieved. Comrade Sailesh was a man filled with expectations for such social changes and remained a Communist to the core until his death.


KOLKATA: Meetings, rallies, and marches marked 10 January when lakhs upon lakhs of people from all strata of the society came out onto the streets and the roads, the lanes and the by-lanes, the rural areas and the urban stretches to condemn Israeli barbarism in the name of ‘defence’ on the Gaza strip in particular and in Palestine in general.

The photo of a young boy swinging a sling-shot containing a small fragment of brick as the Israeli-flown US-made Apache helicopters rained down death on men, women, and children was carried by the marchers as a symbol of the acts of inhuman dimensions taking place in west Asia. The attack of the Gaza strip was preceded some months back by the deathly assault on the sovereignty of Lebanon in the name of Hezbollah just as Hamas is uttered again, and yet again, to ‘justify’ slaughter of the innocent in Palestine.

Marches were taken out by all the Left Front-affiliated units of mass organisation, the workers, the kisans, the youth, the women, the students, and the intellectuals and artistes. Kolkata with its great anti-imperialist tradition witnessed some of the largest rallies in recent times in front of the US information centre in the heart of the metropolis.


KOLKATA: It was all a case of whisper and run. G-a-n-a-sh-a-k-ti, we would utter at an undertone, low pitch and lower volume, when we saw a working class or a lower-income urban person hurrying by the College Street-Harrison Road crossing near the Presidency College, and slip him or her a copy of the evening Ganashakti and the person would without looking us in the face, equally covertly slip us an eight-anna or a rupee piece would not wait for any return of ‘change.’ Then we would disappear-- mingling seamlessly into the office-and-factory crowd retuning from work, and hurrying to the Sealdah railway station nearby. There was no flyover here, then. It was the anarchic decade of the 1970s.

Nevertheless, mostly, it was a case of, as we said, whisper and run, and for our lives. In most instances, Congress mastans from the nearby Amherst Street den of the local MLA would roam around waiting for a hawker of Ganashakti to show himself and then pounce on him in their wolfing dozens, and then, beat him until he would fall unconscious-- and who cared whether the fallen comrade was dying from massive internal bleeding?

Alternatively, or sometimes in tandem, it would be the Congress-backed ‘Naxalites,’ of a new generation of violent neo-fascists, emerging from the gully of a ‘road’ called Bhabani Dutta Street who hurled bombs and ran at us, flourishing daggers. The law-keepers would simply look the other way – too frightened to do anything. The corporate newspapers were demonstratively casual in reporting or keeping silent on the death of a CPI (M) sales-person even as everybody in the media knew that we were braving every frighteningly adversarial circumstance determinedly and every evening to sell Ganashakti, the evening newspaper of the Bengal unit of the CPI (M).

Since then, comrades, we have come a long, long way. However, it must be put on record that while there was a qualitative change in the daily lives of people, and in the process of democratisation at the grass-roots level when the CPI (M) and the Left Front came roaring out of the elections of 1977 at the crest of a mighty popular wave, the Ganashakti was never a de novo phenomenon in 1977 and onwards, alone. Through the roughest of times, it has maintained its role unbroken, back held straight, as a Party organ, as an agitator, and as an organiser, as per the Leninist dictum that continues to govern it today.

Changes, yes, have certainly taken place. It is a big broadsheet of a newspaper now, from the two-page tabloid it was, sometimes carrying sixteen pages, and eight pages are the norm. More additional pages are planned in the days to come. Colour and graphics of a superior order have touched the contents. The hand composition, the linotype, and the photo-offset have given way to computer composition, very often than not ‘online.’ The number of subscribers has increased, what, perhaps several thousand folds so that the newspaper, a morninger for decades now, is able to commandeer a niche amongst the cut-throat-everything-sells-including-lies-served-up-with-attractrive-supplements media world of the 21st century.

Prakash Karat, CPI (M) general secretary was the principal speaker at the celebrations held at the Calcutta university centenary hall on 3 January 2009, and he roamed over a large range of subjects. Prakash Karat’s overwhelming and overarching arguments were in the realm of India’s present set of foreign policy imperatives that made it kow-tow in a lowly humbled fashion before the violent tents of US imperialism.

Linking up terrorism with imperialism, the CPI (M) leader said that when one spoke of fighting terrorism and its discontents, one must not at the same time be a running mate of the violence-in-action that was the US military might. The speaker also came down heavily on the linkages now clearly seen between religious fundamentalism of both kinds and terrorism. He also explained the causes of the no-longer-sub-prime financial crises overwhelming the capitalist world, and affecting the developing countries in the process.

Biman Basu, state secretary of the CPI (M) saw the burgeoning of semi-fascist terror of the 1970s in the way the Trinamulis and the lackeys tried their best or worst to disrupt the social fabric through inchoate violence, chaos, and anarchic manoeuvres, and had the corporate media to give them the publicity of the ‘right’ kind.

From the divisive moves of the GJM at Darjeeling, to the vicious plan to snatch away three western districts of Bengal for a ‘merger’ with Jharkhand, to the everyday violence unleashed on the daily lives of the working people – the Trinamulis and their running mates were out to create an atmosphere of instability in Bengal, as the Lok Sabha elections approached fast, and as their desperation grew by leaps and bounds.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Bengal chief minister noted that in every issue touching daily lives from the grievance of the PTTI studentship to the sub judice issue of auto-rickshaw illegality to developmental and urbanisation schemes was being poisoned by the Trinamul Congress with its attitude of innate violence against all pro-people, civil, and civilised manners of existence itself. Buddhadeb narrated the successes of the Left front government over the years and said that every aspect of the lives of people was considered whenever land was acquired for developmental purposes.

Prakash Karat set the tone of the meeting that had become more of a rally held indoors, when he said that the struggle of the Bengal CPI (M) was never of its own alone—the whole party stood by it with the revolutionary earnestness the struggle deserved. The evening also saw a cultural programme. The Party units selling the highest number of the daily were felicitated. Ganashakti editor Narayan Dutta presided.


Kolkatans celebrate with a photo exhibition the legendary leader’s visit to their city in 1973.

PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT From the "FIDEL in Kolkata" photo exhibition in December 2008. The historic moments were captured by the late Satya Sen, a leading photgrapher of the time. Here, Castro alighting from his aircraft.

FIDEL CASTRO was in Hanoi when the news of Chilean President Salvador Allende’s assassination reached him. It was September 1973 and Vietnam was locked in a deadly struggle for independence against American imperialism. Castro cut short his stay in Vietnam immediately and headed straight back for Cuba. En route, his flight halted for less than an hour at the Calcutta International Airport in Dum Dum on September 17. The simple stopover turned out to be a historic touchdown. Even after 35 years, it excites the imagination of the people of the city, as the huge turnout at the photo exhibition of the occasion recently in Kolkata proved.

None of the Union Ministers was present at the airport to receive Castro as it was an unofficial visit. The then West Bengal Chief Minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress, was in New Delhi, and it was senior Cabinet Minister Tarun Kanti Ghosh who welcomed Castro on the State government’s behalf. Left leaders of the State including Communist Party of India (Marxist) stalwarts Jyoti Basu and Promod Dasgupta, State president of the Forward Bloc Ashok Ghosh, State president of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) Makhan Pal, local Congress leaders, members of the then Soviet embassy, representatives of various women’s organisations, government officials, journalists and photographers, all flocked to meet the legendary “Comandante en Jefe”.

The waiting crowd.
Outside, thousands of Kolkatans gathered to catch a glimpse of Castro. With the help of an interpreter, he chatted with everyone, posed for photographs, nibbled at the snacks laid out for him in the VIP lounge of the airport, and finally boarded the airplane after extending a revolutionary salute to the crowd.
The historic moments were captured for posterity by the late Satya Sen – one of the leading photographers of his time. The five-day “Fidel in Kolkata” photograph exhibition (from December 26 to 30) was organised by the Prabha Khaitan Foundation in collaboration with the Embassy of Cuba and the Nandan West Bengal Film Centre. Thirty of the surviving black-and-white photographs capture him alighting from the aircraft, shaking hands with Jyoti Basu, embracing veteran Marxist leader Gopal Banerjee, conversing with other Left leaders, posing with admirers, partaking of the refreshments, waving to the crowd, and finally boarding the flight to Cuba. The exhibition served to celebrate not just the 35th year of Castro’s visit but, more importantly, the 50th year of the Cuban Revolution.

CPI(M) stalwarts Jyoti Basu and Promod Dasgupta greeting Castro.
Castro left no one disappointed. Clad in his military fatigues and holding his customary cigar elegantly poised between his fingers or lips, he seemed completely at ease and every inch the stuff that myths are made of. Addressing the crowd from the airport portico, Castro recalled in his speech India’s freedom struggle and Kolkata’s tradition of people’s movements against imperialism.

Amid cries of “India-Cuba Solidarity”, “Long live Fidel” and “Long live Allende” from the crowd, he said: “I am well aware of the long cultural history and tradition of India, dating back thousands of years, and the way the country was laid waste by the imperialist powers…. This is where India and Cuba share the same fate in their impediment to development. To combat this requires more sacrifice and long-drawn struggle.” He ended his 15-minute speech with a call for the “workers of the world to unite to fight the forces of imperialism”.

In the crowd that had gathered to see Castro was film director Gautam Ghosh. Recalling his experience of the day, Ghosh said: “I was in my early twenties. Somehow the news had leaked out that Fidel Castro would be in the airport, though he wouldn’t be staying back. It was a chance I felt I could not miss and so I rushed to the airport just to catch a glimpse of him. Going through the pictures in the exhibition, was, in fact, a very nostalgic moment for me. I even tried to find myself in the pictures of the crowds outside the airport, but I couldn’t. I did spot Ruma Guha Thakurta [renowned Bengali artiste] though, but she was already quite famous by then, and I was still unknown, having just started making short documentary films.”

Castro embracing veteran Marxist leader Gopal Banerjee.

Ghosh said Castro and Che Guevara were the icons of his generation. “It was a very romantic era. The whole world was going through changes and we could not but be affected by it. In fact, many of my friends became naxalites, not so much inspired by the ideology as by the romanticism involved in the movement.”

Ghosh narrated how he discovered that Che himself had come to Kolkata in 1959. “Just recently I went across to the Indian Statistical Institute and chanced upon a picture of Che visiting the Kolkata ISI campus. I was thrilled by this discovery, and I don’t think that many people are aware of this fact,” he said.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee inaugurated the photo exhibition. Present on the occasion were Cuban Ambassador to India Miguel Angel Ramirez Ramos, CPI(M) State secretary and Left Front chairman Biman Bose, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury, CPI leader Manjukumar Majumdar, Forward Bloc leader Naren De, RSP leader Manoj Bhattacharya, artist Wasim Kapoor and writer Sunil Gangopadhyay.

The Cuban Ambassador said, “He [Castro] came and won the hearts of the Bengali people, leaving behind pictures and memories of his visit…. The message behind it is more profound. It is a message of friendship, of solidarity and of mutually shared values in a better world where social justice can prevail. On this occasion, when we do not only celebrate the 35th anniversary of Fidel’s visit to Kolkata but also start celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, there is no better audience or public space to do that.”

Nibbling at the snacks laid out for him in the VIP lounge of the airport.
Film director Mrinal Sen, who visited the exhibition on the inaugural day, said he particularly liked the way the exhibition served to keep alive something that took place so long ago. “Though I have never met Fidel Castro, I have had a close relationship with his dear friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was the president of the Film School in Cuba when I had been there for a stint. Those pictures serve to recall the glorious days of the past and remind us what we are missing now,” he said.
The sentiment expressed by him is representative of the general feeling of the masses, especially the younger generation, towards the Cuban Revolution and its heroes, though the world has changed a great deal since then. Gautam Ghosh summed it up aptly: “Such exhibitions are very important. We live in the present, but the present is just a hyphen between the past and the future.

“It is important for the youngsters of today to know about the past, to try and understand why so many people flocked to the airport in 1973 just to catch a glimpse of Castro.”