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SERVICE BEFORE SELF
- An ailing revolutionary and the dustbin of history

The lines that follow were scribbled in the afternoon hours of August 26 last.

In a cramped bed in a Calcutta hospital, a former revolutionary, past ninety, who played a significant role in the raid on the Chittagong armoury more than three-quarters of a century ago, spends his lonely hours. Both old age and persistent illness have shrunk his body. Most of the time, he is in a comatose state. Even during rare moments of consciousness, his voice is weak, nearly inaudible. He does not have the energy in him to concentrate and most of the time fails to recognize even his very dear ones. A nurse is constantly in attention, but conceivably the patient has already passed beyond the pale of even routine looking after. A doctor drops in mornings and late afternoons. This too, one reckons, is part of the routine. A junior comrade has been deputed by the political party the former revolutionary is loyal to, to keep vigil. This comrade-attendant is most earnest, but, again, there is perhaps little he can do. The gentleman is a too-far-gone case of old-age maladies and all that it implies.

The crowd of visitors passing along the corridors of the hospital have no idea of the identity of the patient in terminal condition. Even if they were told his name, the odds are ten thousand to one that it would not ring a bell in them. Freedom fighters are dime a dozen, they belong to the dust heap of history, they have no relevance in today’s society.

The point is, as the Americans say, well taken. Even so, some historical causalities are difficult to disown. In the decade following the end of World War I, Mahatma Gandhi’s message of non-violence and the claimed revolutionary potential in its praxis captured the imagination of the hitherto inert Indian masses. Those ruling the country were, however, not exactly overawed; their greater worry was on account of the activities of armed revolutionaries. Please look up the War Office as well as the India Office records now being publicly released in London. A major reason for the British masters deciding to give up India as a bad job was the impact of the series of incidents of political violence from the mid-Twenties onwards. By the time World War II was over, most British politicians, barring a few stand-outs like Winston Churchill, were agreed that India was too costly a burden to carry. The turmoil sparked by the trial of the Indian National Army personnel was bad enough, but the definitive moment was the revolt of the naval ratings in 1946.

The good life young Indians of the top deciles currently enjoy would not have been possible without the sufferings and tribulations revolutionaries such as the near-anonymous patient in the Calcutta hospital had undergone. This statement would perhaps be considered as both trite and over-sentimental by today’s majority. Even granted they are right, why not still spare a moment for the decrepit ones such as the person lying in the hospital bed: what do they think of where they have arrived at'

Their minds are failing along with their bodies. These men continue to remember the first pledges they took. The ignominy of being under the domination of another nation was unbearable. Not that there were no other pent-up grievances. These were, however, buried under and indistinguishable from the overwhelming anti-colonial emotion. It hurt to be spoken to and ordered about as if one were a domestic slave to these foreigners. The latter were the decision-makers, the natives were only the hukumbarders. While a few members of the ruling race treated a few members of the enslaved community with friendliness and dignity, this specificity could not mitigate the indignity of being under the thumb of an imperial order.

Given the virulence of the hatred they nurtured, the course to take was obvious for the revolutionaries; their aim was the physical annihilation of the enemy. The actual success of the operations they undertook was limited, but there were other spin-offs. The outbreaks of political violence scared the daylights out of wide sections of the ruling race. There was, alongside, an unprecedented rise in the morale of ordinary men and women — and in their pride. Despite Mahatma Gandhi’s strong disapproval of the cult of violence and the official description of the young idealists as terrorists and anarchists, they were universally regarded as national heroes.

For the revolutionaries who survived to see the dawn of independence, the hour of glory is long gone. They are now comprehensively unrecognized. The terminally ill gentleman lying in the hospital bed at Calcutta joined the Communist Party on his release from the cellular prison in the Andaman Islands. Perhaps a wee bit of greater significance is the fact that it was he who introduced his first cousin, Kalpana Dutt, to the party on her release from prison. He has been with the party through the long decades. Always a man of total dedication, he has taken keen interest in the documentation of party history. That apart, he has been a most active behind-the-scene functionary in the state headquarters of the party. Ideologically, he has remained outspokenly rigid and debated fiercely with comrades who were wont to betray neo-liberal tendencies. He has often found himself in the position of a minority of one; that has not disheartened him. The present happenings in the country, and perhaps within his own party, must have put him in a mood of sullen revolt. Both physical frailty and the rigour of party discipline have, however, held him back.

A disturbing question nonetheless rears its head. Revolutionaries such as this gentleman had once mapped out in their minds an outline of the post-revolutionary polity they wanted India to be after the British were ousted. Call it the influence of the season — the Russian revolution was barely a decade old — their dream was to see India emerge as a socialist haven. Tidings of the Soviet five-year plans were percolating in as well. Towering figures of the more conservative nationalist movement were also spouting socialism; they were joined by poets and writers chanting the glory of an arcadia from where all injustice would be banished. Read the documents left behind by martyrs like Bhagat Singh and Surya Sen; they envisaged an independent India which would breathe equality of opportunities and where the commanding heights of the economy would be in the control of the state.

The past twenty years have coincided with a drastic change in political idiom. Free enterprise has supplanted socialism as the operational principle of the national government. Major opinion-setters have followed the trend. Men like the revolutionary lying in the Calcutta hospital bed, however, remain unconvinced. The essence of the neo-liberal doctrine — let individuals pursue their selfish goals, overall social welfare will still be optimized — fails to impress them. Facts, they continue to claim, are on their side: inequalities have not lessened in any of the countries where laissez faire has been put into practice. As for the failure of the socialist system to raise the level of living to Western standards with a reasonable time frame, they would make two separate points. First, the socialist economies did not have the advantage of the imperial loot the Western countries could avail themselves of. Second, the burden of maintaining a certain magnitude of defence spending, so as to enable them combat successfully American military prowess, proved much too much.

But there is a bit more to it. The old revolutionary lying in the hospital bed will refuse to shed the romanticism of his dream. He sticks, obstinately, to his pride, the pride of not abandoning one’s faith. Service before self was what he was taught to believe in; the reverse philosophy of putting self-interest to the fore is something he will continue to resist till his very last breath.

The ailing revolutionary, Subodh Roy, died late in the evening of August 26.

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