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Lose or win, keep your wits

Published Jan 10, 2017 01:10am


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IT is their unalloyed universality that attracted us. Be they Buddha or Marx, Ghalib or Neruda, the Beatles or Frantz Fanon, in my younger days, there were people who could connect the absurdly diverse checkpoints of life, in which hope and justice were arterial. And these magical people were none other than the old-fashioned, wise and unassuming communists.

They smoked cigarettes, or cigars after Che and Castro. And they read the newspapers scrupulously. Not unusually, they visited the libraries and scoured the archives to endorse or challenge their knowledge. They went to the villages and joined gate meetings at factories to test their ideas about change. They enjoyed theatre and mushairas. They easily toggled between good music and deafening coffee house debates, which could occasionally send a sworn right-winger home with a thought to mull over.

They knew how to drink but never allowed a cosy moment to interrupt their carefully curated quest for a just world. Many of them spoke of the times they spent in jail and life when they went into hiding and were underground for months. It was a delight to hear them speak to each other. It was a learning curve for strangers to spend a short time in their company. Of the art of conversation, they were the masters. They could keep an eye on the election in Balrampur where Atal Behari Vajpayee was to be defeated by Subhadra Joshi. And they would be simultaneously riveted to the battle raging in Dien Bien Phu. I found some of the memories in my late uncle S.M. Mehdi’s notes, which he published in Urdu as Chand Tasveerein, Chand Khutoot. The family doctor who looked after him has transcribed the book into the Hindi script, and is looking for a publisher.

Ziaul Hasan was another such who remained a committed communist through his life though he also left the party with which he began to disagree late in life. Like Mehdi, he too felt the party was falling short of the standards prescribed for self-criticism. To complete the romance of his rich life Zia died in harness as one of the most respected journalists of his time. He was making coffee to work on his notes on Antonio Gramsci when he passed away. It was 1993 and he was only 75 and not in his early 80s as I had erroneously imagined. Divergencies is a fascinating collection of her father’s columns from between 1989 and 1990 that Zia’s artist daughter Saba Hasan has compiled. Some of the pieces offer insightful perspectives from his visit to Pakistan.

Regardless of the jute press, so called because major newspaper proprietors sold jute, communists were held in high esteem in India.

“What really surprised me was that in the various market places in Karachi a burqa-clad woman was a rarity,” he observed. “I do not think I saw more than six of them in three weeks of my stay in Karachi and daily outings for different reasons. Fundamentalism in speeches and writings in religious journals may be quite popular. In day-to-day life, it is a myth.”

Regardless of the jute press, so called because major newspaper proprietors sold jute, communists were held in high esteem in India, and for good reason. They were out there in the fields, speaking and engaging with the people and they brought the treasure trove of their experience to the nation’s attention, through parliament and through street campaigns. Hiren Mukherjee was a delight to hear in English and Chaturanan Mishra brought the house down with his wit and humour in Hindi, a quality that Lalu Prasad Yadav from the socialist corner later imbibed. I was reading the renowned cartoonist Abu Abraham’s tribute to fellow Rajya Sabha colleague Bhupesh Gupta, and it is difficult to believe that Gupta’s communist successors may have lost the plot somewhat.

The late Kenneth Tynan, theatre critic, once wrote in the course of a review of one of Brendan Behan’s plays: “The English hoard words like misers; the Irish take them out on a drunken spree.”

Abu noted that Bhupesh Gupta never drank. “Words in his mouth achieved a kind of inebriation and they flung themselves out like a mob pursuing an enemy of the people.”

Abu found that it was a characteristically Indian phenomenon that Bhupesh, a communist, should have been one of the pillars of the country’s parliamentary system. “While Bhupesh was in action, one felt that the system worked!”

I have been scratching my head like so many others to figure out why or how the revered Indian partisans seem to have lost much of the halo, and most of their celebrated wit today. In Pakistan and Indonesia, they were crushed with brute force. But this wasn’t their story in India. Ziaul Hasan suggests their propensity for sectarianism as a big but not the only reason. The fractious partisans may have inspired the lines from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “Are you the Judean Peoples’ Front?” Brian asks an anti-Roman comrade. No, he is reminded. “We are the Peoples’ Front of Judea … The only people we hate more than the Romans is the Judean Peoples’ Front.”

As India grapples with a mortal threat to its democracy, Ziaul Hasan’s writings call out to be heeded. “At the moment the Communist is faced with a painful choice between the Congress and the BJP,” he wrote in December 1989. “His party has told him to defeat the Congress. The only choice then is to vote for the BJP because in the situation of a straight fight the Congress could be defeated only be the victory of the BJP.” Zia warned that the party could “wither away bit by bit”. Luckily, it was a prophecy, not a curse. One hopes the comrades will be able to keep their wits about them, the best weapon they have, as they face the people soon again.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2017


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

AHA Jan 10, 2017 04:47am

Communism in India lost its charm and relevance.

Madhu Jan 10, 2017 06:23am

Do they also need to have some solutions or will just words do?

ss Jan 10, 2017 07:53am

S M Mehdi represented the very best of India's syncretic culture. A refined adeeb, a gentle soul, and, above all else, a decent human being. It is a matter of great sadness that men like him no longer get the reverence and admiration they deserve.

RAM Jan 10, 2017 08:16am

Communism is even dead in China.

NORISK Jan 10, 2017 09:07am

Communism leads no where. Various countries that were communist are capitalist now, most notable among them is China. May be author can explain how India's West Bengal 'benefited' from uninterrupted Communist rule for 30 years ? Today, West Bengal is not even in top 5 states in India, a pity, given its glorious past as a hub of education, thinking and reform since British India.

Sympathiser Jan 10, 2017 09:47am

I compare communism and capitalism like Indian ascetic and the family person. Roti, Kapada and Makan are basic necessities of both ascetic and the family man. Ascetic abhors the greed of family person and family person is jealous of quality of life few rich. In reality neither communist could provide decent necessities to masses and nor capitalist were happy with what they had.

Both of them enjoyed or enjoying at the expanse of poor people.

Ajay ladkani Jan 10, 2017 09:47am

Communist have lost the space in India since BJP came to power. Even in its citadel in West Bengal it relegated to number 3 after Mamta and Congress. It is in the verge of extinct in India.

vasudevan Jan 10, 2017 10:44am

Communists in India lost because of their electoral alliances with the Congress and other corruption-tainted regional parties just to defeat the BJP. But one thing- even today many honest leaders can be found only in the Leftist parties

LEo Jan 10, 2017 11:13am

@Madhu rightly said..

wellwisher Jan 10, 2017 11:16am

communists were for poor and downtrodden, as poverty and oppression started easing off, it died a natural death

bkt Jan 10, 2017 12:24pm

Beautifully written. Thanks Dawn.

Sushil chandra Jan 10, 2017 12:26pm

Today also, they are the only political outfit without a casteist, regionalist, communal outlook without a family monopoly and least taint of corruption or criminal nexus and that is probably THE reason for their decline. Yes, they have lost the touch with ground realities and day to day struggles of their constituents that is workers and small farmers. But in my view, in todays world you dont succeed with with people unless you connect to the baser instincts of people related to their identities. That is why workers protesting under AITUC banner finally vote for their caste-men in election. So finally it is their idealism which is their doom.

SAMIR RAHMAN (INDIA) Jan 10, 2017 01:41pm

like an automobile is driven using low gears initially countries started with communism and have driven their respective nations to "top speed" and are like capitalists nowerdays

pipe dreams of correcting the earlier bad driving isn't practical, and reverting back to "drive correctly" a country shall only break the "gears" itself!

VINEETH G Jan 10, 2017 02:02pm

"Fundamentalism in speeches and writings in religious journals may be quite popular. In day-to-day life, it is a myth." - Applies very well in the current Indian context too. For all the noise made by progressives of growing 'intolerance', I'm yet to see this elusive thing in real life beyond all the newspapers, news rooms and Twitter wars.

Nikhil Kohli Jan 10, 2017 02:36pm

if leftists were really so learned, passionate and wise - then why did they fail and failed repeatedly, why did always beg BJP or Congress. Leftists do not like reality - reality is leftists are either elitist or goons.

NVV Jan 10, 2017 03:02pm

Communists and communism will wither away. Its an unnatural flow and has demonstrated its futility world over. Speaking of poor and food/shelter/clothing is sexy to speak of, but communism has used bullets and iron curtains against its own people. Just because it is unnatural.

NVV Jan 10, 2017 03:09pm

Today, there is no one caring for Communists in Bengal where they ruled for 25 years. They left the state in weakest economical situation. All other states have marched ahead. Thanks to being NON-COMMUNIST states.

UKumar Jan 10, 2017 10:39pm

@vasudevan "But one thing- even today many honest leaders can be found only in the Leftist parties". is not true. Congress party is left of center and full of corruption. Even so called Samajwadi (socialist) party in UP is one of most corrupt. So corruption can occur in any type of party unless members are vigilant.