Paying tribute to comrade Saroj Dutta on the occasion of his birth centenary, we published in the March 2014 number of Liberation his biographical sketch, one of his best-known poems and the obituary written by comrade Charu Mazumdar soon after the martyrdom of comrade Dutta. In this issue we bring you an essay in tribute to the legacy of the revolutionary artist, journalist, political analyst and senior party leader.
The last phase of Rolland’s life bears remarkable resemblance to the end of Saroj Dutta’s life”, wrote comrade Bela Dutta, his wife and herself a communist cadre, in the preface to the collected works of SD in Bengali (published by Pranati Prakashani, Kolkata, 1988). She quoted comrade Dutta from the translator’s note to Shilpir Nabajanma (meaning The Artist Reborn, Bengali translation, by Saroj Dutta, of Roma Rolland’s I Will Not Rest) – “…’Without a doubt, Rolland died in consequence of the torture he suffered at the Nazi concentration camp. This is why his death makes us more proud than aggrieved.’ In the spirit of the translator, we too, along with all our country people, feel proud of Sarojbabu.”
Indeed, this sense of dignified pride for comrade SD is fondly cherished by all left and progressive intellectuals, poets, artists and writers in and beyond Bengal till this day. In life as in death, he was and will remain a role model for the most precious qualities of a revolutionary intellectual: commitment to ideology, party and people; uncompromising antiestablishment fervour; eternal dynamism – the spirit of “I Will Not Rest” – and of course, absolute fearlessness and the series of ‘small’ sacrifices in everyday life leading to the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of revolution.
A committed communist since early youth (he became a formal member of the party only later) SD chose the field in which he could put his talents to best use: culture and publications. As noted in the biographical sketch published earlier, he served on the editorial boards of the Bengali party organ Swadhinata, the party-led literary magazine Parichay and later of Deshabrati. His comments, articles and poems published in these and other left periodicals since the 1930s through 1960s up to August 1971 were marked by intense revolutionary passion, sharp political sensitivity, deep sense of history and vast knowledge of Indian and international art and literature.
“… According to Promode Dasgupta, revolutionary communists do not recognise the value of workers’ struggle and trade union movement; they allegedly hold that armed agrarian revolution in rural areas is the only thing that is needed! Promodebabu and his associates are well aware that this is a dammed lie. Communist revolutionaries never denied – rather they have repeatedly emphasised – the importance of workers’ struggle and trade union movement. They have also stressed the need of raising such struggles to the level of a political movement, of developing urban agitations. But at the same time they have been strongly suggesting that all such urban struggles should be regarded as complementary to the revolutionary armed peasant movement going on in rural areas. They wish to cleanse the workers’ and other toilers’ struggles in urban areas of economism and to develop them as genuine class struggle. It is their firm conviction that in our country the axis of revolution can only be peasant struggle in rural areas. If this struggle is downplayed or tacitly rejected while calling for militant trade union movement, they believe that would amount to nothing but Trotskyist and Titoist politics.”
- Deshabrati, 11 July 1968
Ideological Struggle on the Cultural Front
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he was busy conducting sharp ideological struggle in the field of art and literature. In a few cases his criticism sounded inordinately harsh and smacked of left sectarianism; e.g., his diatribe against noted left poet and analyst Samar Sen (SS). But the direction and essential purpose of his straightforward criticism – to defeat the attempt, made by a group of talented emerging writers, of presenting their portrayal of decadence, passive suffering, boredom, and horror of their class, the educated middle class of Bengal caught in a whirlpool of economic decline and ideological confusion, as revolutionary literature – was basically correct and necessary. Even SS recognised this in part after the death of SD.
SD’s best write-up on this theme probably was “The Role of Revisionists in Partisan Art and Literature in Bengal”, which was published in the Autumn 1965 number of Deshahitaishi. Here he summed up the coexistence and struggle between decadent and progressive/revolutionary trends in art and literature over the decades since mid-1930s in the perspective of major changes in international-national political situation and shifts in party line. Drawing attention to the liberal/right opportunist approaches that became dominant in left cultural circles at the time in the name of fighting ultra-left deviation, he formulated the main task on the cultural front in these words:
“Today the duty of artists and writers in our country, Bengal in particular, is on the one hand to connect closely with class struggle and on the other, to fight relentlessly against revisionism and help establish Marxism-Leninism in the field of art and literature as well as in the life of the masses. It is absolutely necessary to build up a united front for revolutionary mass struggle against the common enemy, but that should be done only with firm self-assertion and not in the liquidationist way of self-abnegation. Flexibility is very much needed here, but that must not extend to surrendering one’s positions. There must be maximum tolerance, but not at the cost of jeopardising our identity, standpoint and right to political assertion.”
Upholding Our Glorious Heritage
Apart from fighting erroneous trends, SD considered it his duty to introduce his readers to the best of national and international progressive/revolutionary literature. Even a cursory look at the following list (which is far from complete) of poets whom he translated into his mother tongue would suffice to show this: Parvez Shahedi, Muhammad Iqbal, Lord Byron, Nicholas Vapsarov, Chiang Yen, Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, Vladimir Mayakovski, Chen-E, Patris Lumumba, Arnest Jones, Mao Zedong. He also translated a number of prose writings of Gorky, Krupskaya, Tolstoy, Mikhail Schedrin, Pavelenco, Turgenev and of course, Rolland.
SD also paid attention to highlighting the progressive, pro-people traditions in Bengali literature. In an article titled “Rabindranath” he profusely praised the poet’s role as a publicist against imperialism. Here he jealously highlighted the political – mainly anti-imperialist – implications in much of Tagore’s writings and asserted, “we cannot, and we must not try to, think of Rabindranath simply as a poet and creative artist in isolation from Rabindranath as a publicist and public figure.” In a poem with the same title, written days after the death of the poet, he paid tribute to the timeless value of Robi Thakur’s poetry and sharply criticised the cynics who “seek to deny and cheat the very soil on which they stand” and concluded by saying that the final assessment remains to be made, but “you must be defended – this much I have realised and I take this as my precious asset.”
SD’s theoretical approach in evaluating great artists and authors stands out most clearly in “A Marxist Appreciation of Madhusudan’s Works”. This was a review of a well-researched book on the great radical poet of nineteenth-century Bengal, written by Doctor Shitangshu Moitro. SD was all praise for this review, a pioneering work from the Marxist viewpoint, but expressed his difference on a very important point. Doctor Moitro saw Madhusudan’s works as reflective of the poet’s class position in colonial India – that of an intellectual representative of the nascent Indian bourgeoisie, which was losing out in an unequal, unfair competition with the dominant British bourgeoisie. Dutta by contrast held that “Madhusudan became an epoch-making artist precisely because his works truthfully and artistically (not in a crude, mechanistic manner) reflected not just the agony of the bourgeoisie or the middle-class intelligentsia, but the overall social milieu marked by the fire and glow, the daring and dashed hopes, of the peasant insurgencies and other movements of the day.” He cited Lenin – “An artist, truly great, must have reflected in his work at least some essential aspects of the revolution” – and added that this was true for Madhusudan too. And it is this approach, it would not be unreasonable to infer, that lay behind his eulogisation of Rabindranath in the article referred above.
In the Wake of the Spring Thunder
After Naxalbari, it has been famously stated, nothing remained as before. Tremendous indeed was its rousing impact on left and progressive writers and artists, but few of them advanced as far and as consistently forward as Saroj Dutta did. He took no time in grasping and responding to the urgent demands of the historic moment, the unprecedented and rapidly maturing revolutionary situation. Already on the wrong side of fifty, he took giant strides beyond his accustomed field of culture and publicity and immersed himself completely in the work of building a revolutionary communist party.
He had crossed over from undivided CPI to the CPI (M) in 1964 itself, now he became one of the founding members of the Naxalbari Krishak Sangram Sahayak Committee (Committee in Aid of Peasant Struggle in Naxalbari) and then of the AICCCR and finally of the CPI (ML). In all these phases, and particularly during the intense debates within the party since 1970, he proved himself to be one of the most reliable lieutenants of Charu Mazumdar. In 1970, he was called upon to shoulder the responsibility of secretary of the party’s West Bengal state committee. The party was then facing the most severe repression from without and intense political - organisational struggle within. The situation was extremely challenging, but he did not dither. Rather he reinvented himself for the new role. As a member of the Political Bureau, he also visited other states, striving to firmly establish the revolutionary line of CM at a time when many of the other leaders had been jailed or killed or fallen out with the party centre.
The “leader of the party” – as Charu Mazumdar respectfully called him in his obituary, is available to us in only a few extant writings. One of these is a letter to the party’s Nadia district committee written in mid-1971. Here SD first clarifies the party’s positions on certain complex issues like the violent strife in Pakistan, the reactionary role of US imperialism and the Indira government in India, the growing mass movement in East Pakistan and so on, soberly pointing out where the comrades went wrong in their evaluation of these issues. He also mentions certain activities of some comrades that amounted to breaking party discipline, but very calmly and only in passing. The state secretary’s point of emphasis is rather on free and frank political discussion within the party on debatable questions. In place of the fiery polemics characteristic of SD, we find here the patient persuasion by a senior leader.
The enhanced organisational responsibilities since 1968 did not, of course, stop the prolific writer. The highly charged political atmosphere and the conditions of underground work were not particularly suitable for composing poems, but his powerful prose remained his most effective weapon in the revolutionary battle. Particularly noteworthy in this regard were (a) his weekly column in Deshabrati and (b) a series of articles defending the iconoclastic movement of revolutionary students and youths in 1970-71.
“In the World of Newspapers and Periodicals”
Incisive, insightful and often satirical, Patrikar Duniaye by ‘Shashanka’ (the pseudonym SD used for this column) became one of the most popular regular feature in Deshabrati from early August, 1967. Week after week, reactionary and revisionist positions on current political affairs were razed to the ground, and revolutionary communist positions brilliantly upheld, in the shape of commentaries on editorials, lead articles and important reportage published in major newspapers and periodicals, including organs of the CPI and the CPI (M).
Whenever an opportunity presented itself, ‘Shashanka’ made it a point to enlighten his readers about positive political trends. On 18 January 1968, for instance, Deshabrati welcomed the first shoots of an alternative journalism in India citing the example of People’s Path – an English monthly published by Deshbhakt Yadgar Committee, Jalandhar – which hailed the Naxalbari uprising and firmly criticised the revisionist and reactionary positions. Thus in a very lively way the feature served to impart political education to party ranks and other readers on latest developments in the state, the country and the world. He also wrote a good number of editorials for Deshabrati, where the problems, prospects and emerging tasks of the revolutionary movement were discussed in a more straightforward manner and in a style closely resembling Charu Mazumdar’s.
Ideologue of Youth Upsurge
The revolutionary youth upsurge in West Bengal, centred in Kolkata, reached its zenith in 1970-71 and Saroj Dutta emerged as its most authentic ideologue.
This was Bengal’s second age of fire – agni yug – (the first one was in the first decade of the century, directed against British colonialists) when young people in large numbers plunged into the roaring sea of revolution. One of the many novel forms they developed, in close connection with the movement of leaving the institutions of formal education and going in for political work among peasants and workers, was the breaking of statues of nationalist leaders and eminent personalities like MK Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and so on. The party’s political stand regarding this new form of agitation was formulated by Charu Mazumdar in August 1970 in an article devoted to this specific subject but significantly titled “Connect with the Revolutionary Peasant Struggle”. While extending full support to “the festival of statue-breaking”, CM asserted that the revolutionary student youth awakening owed its origin in the ongoing agrarian revolution and must deeply integrate with the latter, i.e., go back to its roots, if it were to sustain itself and advance to newer heights. This theoretical-political line was elaborated, enriched and applied in specific case studies by comrade SD.
In a series of articles written in quick succession, he explained that the iconoclastic agitation was not planned and directed by the party, yet the party owned it because it was born under the impact of the revolutionary peasant struggle initiated and led by it. Rather than interfering with this youth explosion, the party wished it to develop freely and saw its own role in constantly instilling into the movement the consciousness of its origin and orientation. In addition to general discussion, comrade SD wrote separate articles on Gandhi, Bose, Vidyasagar and Prafulla Chandra Roy. With no scope of library work and always hard-pressed for time, he drew upon his vast knowledge to bring to light the darker sides of the public lives of these renowned men. He convincingly showed how they failed to support anti-British mass movements, including India’s First War of Independence (1857), and how they themselves entered into various compromises with the British Raj. Imperialists and rulers of independent India have always highlighted these official icons of nationalism and erected their statues precisely for suppressing the true story of our actual struggle for independence and its real heroes like Sidho and Kanhu, the Queen of Jhansi, Khudiram and so on. For example, the “Gandhi Ghat” was constructed on the Ganga at Barackpur to obliterate the memory of Mongal Pandey, who had started the great rebellion of 1857 from the military barrack located here. To undo this conspiracy, SD argued, it was necessary to hit out against Gandhi et al and uphold the legacy of Pandey and others like him. And that was exactly what the students and youth of Bengal were trying to do, he pointed out.
With hindsight, it is easy to see that these articles, while achieving the main purpose with great effect, failed to recognise the positive contributions and achievements, howsoever partial, which many of the public figures had made from within their personal and class limitations. Indeed, SD accomplished only the first step, the most difficult, most painful and most decisive act of bringing down the icons his generation (and preceding ones) had been trained to worship. He advanced a strong antithesis, one of complete rejection, against the reigning thesis of blind worship; history did not grant him the time and opportunity to take the next logical step – to work out a synthesis – a balanced, dialectical, consistently Marxist reassessment of the celebrated literary and political figures of 19th and 20th century India.
Without destruction, there can be no construction – Saroj Dutta used to say. But seldom in real life does the latter follow the former in a smooth, seamless transition. It takes time for the heat and dust generated by the act of destruction to cool off and settle down, before the actual construction or reconstruction can begin, although at the conceptual level it might have begun earlier. That was what happened in this case too. With the curtains abruptly coming down on Act I of the epic drama of Naxalbari movement, with the exit of the intrepid, audacious, young iconoclasts and their evergreen friend-philosopher-guide, a whole army of historians, social scientists and others came over to take up and carry forward the work left unfinished by the pioneers. Before long, the first shoots of a new progressive historiography of colonial India began to rise on the soil cleared by SD and soon grew into a multi-branched Banyan tree. The statue breaking campaign and SD’s powerful intervention in the debate that followed did not go in vain.
‘I Will Not Rest’
In everyday life Saroj Dutta was a simple, sociable, witty, responsible man – very compassionate to the needy, aggressively honest and adamant against the enemy. As noted, he was a man of many merits. Yet, what Engels said at the graveside of his bosom friend applies equally to the multi-dimensional man we have been talking about: SD was, above all, a revolutionary. He was not just an artist with communist convictions. More than that, he was a communist who for the best part of his life wielded his pen to help spread revolutionary consciousness among the people, and when Naxalbari happened, lost not a moment in taking up the sword in his other hand, bringing to rest all controversy as to which of the two weapons was mightier.
The “leader of the party” never lost the imaginative faculties of a poet. Ultimately there are three pathways open to a revolutionary, he used to tell his comrades: to run away from the battlefield, to meet a slow death in prison, or to die before a firing squad. His personal preference, he would say, was for the third option. Eventually that was the award he won for his lifetime achievements. Life – so colourful, so vibrant, so magnificent in his case – ultimately garlanded him with death by firing squad.
The cowardly agents of the reactionary state who shot him dead on the wee hours of 5 August, 1971, also tore away his head. But Saroj Duttas cannot be silenced by beheading. Head erect, he now stands taller than life on his 100th birth anniversary, just by the side of Charu Mazumdar. His gaze fixed far into the future, he says, beckoning to the next generations: I have not stopped. I will not stop. I will not rest – you too come along.
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Note: Comrade SD’s date of birth was wrongly given there as 14 March 1914, which should be 13 March 1914. We regret the error.