Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Street-fighting Historian:Goutam Chattopadhyay (1924-2006)

In tribute, Kunal Chattopadhyay* writes about his father’s life and times.
*Email: soma1kunal@airtelbroadband.in

Goutam Chattopadhyay was born on December 9, 1924. His father, Kshitish Prosad Chattopadhyay, was an eminent anthropologist, a student of W.H.R.Rivers and the founder of the Department of Anthropology, University of Calcutta. Goutam’s mother was Manjushree. Though he never flaunted his pedigree, Goutam was proud of being descended from reformers and modernisers like Raja Manmohun Roy, Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (on his father’s side) and Dwarkanath Tagore (on his mother’s side).

Goutam’s induction to politics, Indian nationalism, and leftism were partly through his father. Kshitish Prasad had been a friend of Subhas Chandra Bose, and when Bose decided not to be an ICS, his friend followed suit. Returning to India, Kshitish joined Calcutta University, but after the Swarajya Party won the Calcutta Corporation elections, became Education Officer at the request of his friend Subhas. His work included not only a massive expansion of the corporation primary school system, but also the giving of jobs to relatives of revolutionary nationalists. But when Kshitish proposed a scheme to enlarge the scope of corporation sponsored education to ensure the eradication of illiteracy from Calcutta, he found himself thwarted by several ‘bhadralok’ nationalist councilors. It was at this point that he gave up this job and returned to Calcutta University. But he never gave up his political views. He was to be severely beaten up by the police on January 26, 1931, when Bose, then Mayor, marched at the head of a procession with the Congress flag towards the Monument, flanked on two sides by Kshitish Prasad and Jyotirmayee Ganguly, daughter of Dwarkanath Ganguly and Kadambini Ganguly. When the police attacked, first Chattopadhyay and then Ganguly protected Bose with their bodies till the police struck them down. When the white khaddar-clad KPC was brought home, blood spattered all over the white, his six-year-old son asked how this had happened, to be told by his grandfather that the British had done this. He replied that in that case, when I grow up I too will beat up the British. This was young Goutam’s initiation into the realities of anti-imperialist struggles. But his direct participation came with the Holwell Monument agitation. He was then attracted to Marxism through his uncle Rajani Mukherjee, a follower of M. N. Roy and a trade unionist. He originally turned to the Bolshevik Party under the influence of his friend Pradyot Mukherjee, but soon turned to the Communist Party of India, when he decided the key task was to side with the Soviet Union in the anti-fascist peoples’ war. From 1943, he was a member of the CPI.

Joining the CPI in 1943 was a very categorical decision. It meant taking a hard political stand about the war and the role Indians should play. For Goutam, personally, it also meant taking up a political stand against a man he greatly respected and in private life referred to as ‘uncle’ till the end, for Subhas Chandra Bose had organized the INA with Japanese support.

Goutam studied in Ballygunge Government High School, and then in Vidyasagar College followed by Krishnanagar College, from where he graduated with English Honours. He was active in the All-India Students Federation, to become President of the Bengal Provincial SF, when Geeta Mukherjee was the General Secretary.

During the post-war upsurge, he was a student leader. Contemporaries remember him as a fiery orator. He was present during the night of November 21, 1945 when students held Dharmatolla after the death of Rameshwar Banerjee, and was also active during the three days of struggle during Rashid Ali Day. He participated in the Prisoners’ Release struggle and fought during the all-India general strike in solidarity with the long Post and Telegraph strike of 1946. His contemporary narration was in the pamphlet Rakter Sakshar (In Letters of Blood). In 1946 he went to Europe as the leader of the AISF delegation to the founding Congress of the International Union of Students, which met at Prague. But his fondest memory was of a trip from there to Yugoslavia, of which he wrote in a pamphlet, I Saw Yugoslavia. Throughout his life he would return to the crucial years 1945-47, when India was on the verge of a revolution that did not happen. The young man who spoke in meetings, recited the poems of Sukanto Bhattacharyya and Subhas Mukhopadhyay to impassioned audiences, and stood at barricades fighting the police and the army, would always prompt the mature scholar when he reflected on ‘The Almost Revolution’.

This would indeed be the most significant contribution Goutam would make as a historian, in a series of essays spanning the years 1976 – 2005. ‘The Almost Revolution’ appeared in B. De et al edited, Essays in Honour of Prof. S.C. Sarkar (1976). It argued that the post-war upsurge had broken out of the Congress mould and failed to turn into a revolution because there was no sufficiently strong alternative revolutionary leadership. This would be fleshed out by articles like those in Amit Gupta ed., Myth and Reality: The Struggle for Freedom in India, 1945-47, (1988), or ‘Bengal Students Movement’, in Nisith Ranjan Ray, Kalpana Joshi (Dutt) and others ed, Challenge: A Saga of India’s Struggle for Freedom (1984), in his histories of the students’ movement: Swadhinata Sangrame Banglar Chhatra Samaj (1973), Swadhinata Sangrame Bharater Chhatra Samaj (1990) and in his keynote address to the 2004 New Alipur College Session of the Paschim Banga Itihas Samsad, entitled ‘Dwitiyo Biswayuddhottar Ganabidroha-- Phire Dekha’ (published in Itihas Anusandhan-19, Calcutta 2005). In his life too, friendships made in this period were among those that were the firmest – with Santosh Bhattacharyya, but above all with Sunil Munshi, and his leaders Prabhat Dasgupta and Ramen Banerjee.

After independence he was among the local organizers of the South East Asian Youth Conference. When, soon after the Second CPI Congress and its left line, the Party was banned, this would figure in the list of charges against him. He was accused by the Indian state of having tried to foment rebellions across South East Asia. No doubt, Ho Chi Minh and Tan Malaka would have been puzzled to know that they were taking instructions from Goutam Chattopadhyay in Calcutta. But the Indian police took all this seriously enough, and he stayed underground for four years, including one stint in his own home, in a concealed room built by his father.

Many communist leaders inspired Goutam, and despite polemics (e.g., after the split) he retained his respect for them regardless of which party they were in. But three party leaders were probably the greatest inspirations for him. They were P. C. Joshi, Somnath Lahiri, and Biswanath Mukherjee. In later life he would often argue that whatever the ‘right deviation’ of the Joshi period, it was Joshi alone who had understood how communists should penetrate civil society. Lahiri epitomised for him the total commitment to proletarian leadership. And Biswanath Mukherjee, the legendary student leader, was also an eye opener for this life long urban communist, as to what it meant to do communist work among the peasantry. But despite later political differences he also remained extremely respectful of, in particular, B. T. Ranadive, S. A. Dange and E.M. S. Namnboodiripad.

In the period of the post-war upsurge he had given up his studies. He returned to them a decade later, changed subjects, did his MA in History from Calcutta University as a private candidate and stood first, scoring what were then record marks in some papers like the one on China. His communist stamp was very strong, and according to the story he narrated to his family members, when he applied for a job in a University, its Rector told him he would be taken in only if he dropped his political work. So he worked all his life as a lecturer in Surendranath College for Women. There too, his commitment to teachers’ rights and his work in defending that before a privately run college’s board led to his losing a part-time job he held in the Day College. He married Jayasree Ghosh, sister of Sada Prosonno Ghosh, a party comrade who had been his courier, in 1953. Their son Kunal was born in 1959.

In 1962 came the India-China war. Though he was critical of China, he did not give way to nationalist hysteria. With the party split came additional responsibilities. In 1967, during the elections, he was a prominent speaker and writer for the CPI. It was also a difficult period as his wife died. He was to go into a second, much briefer underground when the First United Front Government was overthrown.

In 1956, following the 20th CPSU Congress, there had occurred a great shake up in mainstream international communism. Goutam was to say later that having given up a belief in one infallible leader, he was never again willing to accept another such. So he remained a communist who tried to apply his understanding of Marxism in his own way. A member of the CPI, a loyal soldier, as he saw it, of the international revolution, he was internationalist to the core. For close to four decades, his writings in the weekly and the daily Kalantar, in Mainstream, in Saptaha, and a dozen other journals, and in a number of pamphlets, testify to this. His writings covered the Cuban revolution, the Vietnam War and the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese, the liberation of Angola, the Nicaraguan revolution, the Afghan revolution in its early phase, and so on. He was to retain his anti-imperialism all his life, and even in one of his last major speeches, delivered in memory of Christopher Hill, he finished with comments about the US war on Iraq. But his internationalism was always a critically thinking internationalism. In 1968, he thought that regardless of the specific economic proposals of Ota Sik (which he felt hardly differed from the Libermann proposals), the attempt at democratisation and pluralism by the Dubcek team was worthy of full-scale support. So he was deeply disappointed when Warsaw pact countries sent in their tanks in the ‘friendly’ occupation of Czechoslovakia. He also got into some trouble with the party leadership because in an article devoted to the triumph of fascism, he had criticised the ‘Third Period’ sectarian line of the Communist International and had commented that Trotsky had warned of the disastrous consequences this would bring for the German working class. Though he was never a Trotskyist or sympathizer, he had an unusually large collection of Trotsky’s writings for the late 1960s –early 1970s. He was also among the earliest to read and apply the ideas of Antonio Gramsci in his own political concepts, when they started coming out.

During the Bangladesh War, Goutam threw himself into solidarity work. His residence at 2 Palm Place was forever swarming with visitors from Bangladesh/East Pakistan, some scholars like Professor Salahuddin Ahmed, many more political activists from the CP Bangladesh, the National Awami Party (both factions) and even the occasional Awami League member. Aminul Islam (Badsha) was a favourite. Transfer of uniform, shoes, food, and canteens for carrying water, etc, to Mukti Yoddhas were organised and his house and those of his friendly neighbours became transit points. By this time he had married Manju Gupta, and she too worked with him as a party member and historian. Their son Dhiman was born in 1972.

This was also a trying time in India. The armed struggle line of Charu Mazumdar and his comrades, the clash between different sections of the left and the murder of each other’s cadres, and looming over it all the repressive machinery of the state was a permanent reality in West Bengal in those days. Chattopadhyay was in favour of Communist unity, and at the same time he was a staunch defender of civil liberties. After the Cossipore-Baranagore mass murder of naxalites, he wrote the article ‘Footfalls of Fascism in Bengal’, for the weekly New Wave, which editor O. P. Sangal refused to print in his name, printing it anonymously, saying Goutam might otherwise be in danger from the same thugs. Then, in 1975, at Curzon Park, police had brutally murdered the actor Probir Dutta. So terror stricken was Calcutta that hardly 75 intellectuals turned up at a protest meeting. Goutam was one of the few who did, and he spoke there. The commitment to civil liberties would remain intact all his life. He would march in the rally demanding prisoners’ release in 1977, after the fall of Indira Gandhi’s government, he would be articulate in his defence of Archana Guha’s right to a fair trial and as a result face a contempt of court case along with Debes Roy and Ashok Dasgupta (editor of Aajkaal), he would march and speak after the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, and sign protests condemning the arrest of Kaushik Ganguly and others as supposed PWG sympathizers.

From the late 1950s, however, Goutam was also involved as a scholar. His first interest was in the Bengal Renaissance, and he brought out two volumes of rare documents: Awakening in Bengal (1964), and Bengal: Early 19th Century (. These dealt with documents of the Derozians, and his interpretation of the Derozians would continue to be a part of the historical debates in later times.

But in subsequent years his major fields of attention would be the communist and working class movement and the freedom movement. Books and significant monographs would include Rus Biplab O Banglar Mukti Andolan (1967), Communism and Bengal’s Freedom Movement, vol. 1 (1970), Lenin O Samakalin Bangladesh (1970) (with Manju Chattopadhyay), Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian Communist Movement: A Study of Cooperation and Conflict (1973), translated also into Hindi and Telugu, Bengal Electoral Politics and Freedom Struggle (1984), Strike, Strike (1991), Gandhiji, Subhas Chandra O Bharater Communist Andolan (1995), Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian Leftists and Communists (1997), Subhas Chandra Bose: A Biography, (1997), Itihaser Pata Theke (2001), and a stream of essays and pamphlets on the history and conmtemporary problems of the communist movement, some of which are Peshwar Theke Meerut (1984), Biswa Sramik Andolaner Gorar Katha (1989), Samajtantrer Agni Pariksha o Bharater Communist Andolan (1992), edited volume Sanhati, Langal O Ganabani (1992), Sarbahara Biplaber Jayosankhya (Sushobhan Sarkar Memrial Lecture 1998), etc.

From the 1960s, he was associated with the CPI daily and weekly Kalantar, and wrote editorials, reviews of international affairs, and commentaries on Indian politics, and so on. Never one to write what he did not believe in, he took clear positions. A number of occasions where his work as a historian and as a communist activist came together included a sharp reply to Arun Shourie’s attacks on the CPI, entitled Bharatiya Moshijibir Communist Birodhi, Soviet Birodhi Kutsar Jabab (Bharat Chharo Andolan O CPI Prasango) (1984), and a similar response to attacks entitled Bharater Swadhinata Sangram O Communist Partyr Bhumika (1992).

Goutam Chattopadhyay was an inspirer of research and an organizer too. Countless students of different generations were to profit immensely from his assistance and guidance, as several recounted after his death. They included his direct students like Kanai Lal Chattopadhyay, Debarata Majumdar, etc, as well as others working in Calcutta University, Jadavpur University, JNU, etc, like Anuradha Roy.

He was associated for many decades with the Indian History Congress, was several times a member of its Executive Committee, and in the words of Irfan Habib, was “a mentor and guide”. He was elected Sectional President of the Modern India Section for the Srinagar Session of 1986 and delivered an address on the Role of the Working Class in India’s Freedom Struggle, in which he frankly combined his identities as communist activist and historian.

Goutam Chattopadhyay was always profoundly committed to secular history writing and teaching. He himself, both alone and with his wife Manju, wrote a number of text-books in Bengali. After the Janata era attack on History text books following Nanaji Deshmukh’s notorious note, Professor Sushovan Sarkar wrote an article, which was used as the rallying cry by Goutam Chattopadhyay and his teacher professor A. W. Mahmood to launch the Paschim Banga Itihas Samsad, dedicated to the promotion of secular and scientific history writing and research in the Bengali language. For many years he was Secretary, then President of the Samsad. The Samsad played a major role in fighting communalist attacks. He contributed to this to the end, presiding over a national seminar at Jadavpur University when two volumes of the Towards Freedom project were under attack by the NDA government. He and Salauddin Ahmed jointly led a cross-border meeting of Historians in 1991 defending secularism. It was fitting that his felicitation volume was brought out by the Itihas Samsad in 2005, with the entire Executive Committee (excluding him) as the Board of Editors.

Goutam Chattopadhyay died in the early hours of 2006, at 2 in the morning, of a sudden cardiac failure. On his work desk was the draft of a new book he was to edit for the National Book Trust, an anthology of writings of personalities of the Bengal Renaissance.

Originally written -- 9th January 2006


Sayan said...

A truly wonderful post. Thanks for this!

Nivedita Sen said...

Enjoyed reading this. Could you please provide me the exact name of your father's book Swadhinata Sangrame Banglar/ Bharater/ Bharatiya Chhatra Samaj and the name of the publisher? I need it for a reference in a book of mine that is in the pipeline. Thank you. My email address is nivedita118@gmail.com.