It’s impossible to believe that the murderers of Shilda were driven by the quest for a “better world” that has taken Jolly Mohan Kaul from communism to Gandhism. But, then, it’s equally difficult to see the victims of that tragedy, and of other Maoist killings —whether jawans or peasants — as defenders of the “better social system” that is his goal.
It’s not a new conundrum. The young Irishmen who took up arms for freedom were national heroes but the crimes the Provisional Irish Republican Army committed in the name of that ideal outraged all decent Irishmen. The dilemma is sharper in India because idealism slips easily into opportunism. In an Indian — especially Bengali — version of The God That Failed, the original promotional tag, “Six famous men tell how they changed their minds about Communism”, would have to be expanded to 60 or even 600. But such a book would never be written because, however luxurious their present lifestyle, few ideological turncoats admit to abandoning Marx and Lenin.
This is not just an instance of reconciling multiple identities à la Amartya Sen. The shrewd calculation behind continuing professions of ideological commitment guaranteed rich pickings in the Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi eras, when “progressives” comprised what is called in another context the creamy layer. Bengal’s leftist intellectuals (is a leftist ever anything else? Can an intellectual be anything but a leftist?) are assured of the sinecures and plums — committee chairmanships, academic dignities, foreign tours — of official patronage.
But not for Jolly who doesn’t talk Left and walk Right. He isn’t Bengali either though he went to school and college in Calcutta and married the indomitable Manikuntala Sen who gave an impression of cold hauteur until the radiance of a sudden smile illumined her entire features. I remember a sethji in Ahmedabad, which we visited in 1964, telling us he had happy memories of Calcutta and would like to meet the Bengali in our group. Mischievously, I pointed out Jolly, calling him “Jaladhar Chatterjee”. It worked. Both chattered away in Bengali, sethji brokenly, Jolly, with his sense of fun and gift for mimicry — his take-off of P.C. Joshi amused even the target — fluently.
No one could have guessed then that Jolly, pink like a freshly-scrubbed apple and eternally cheerful, was emerging from the ashes of his first great commitment “in search of a better world”, the title of his memoirs to be published next Thursday by Samya. “I had, as a 19-year-old lad, full of idealism, decided to give up everything and dedicate myself wholeheartedly to the party, believing that it was the only instrument that could bring about a better world.” Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s misdeeds, infighting in the Communist Party of India and the farce of the 1961 Vijayawada congress were troubling. What finally killed his dream was not just China’s aggression but the obsequiousness of CPI hardliners who had received a brand new rotary machine.
His finely worded resignation letter at the end of January 1963 said that “a neighbouring Communist country” was behaving “in a manner which weakens the democratic and progressive forces in the country”. He meant that Indian communists were betraying their cause and country by ingratiating themselves with the aggressors. He now adds an even more devastating indictment: Indian communism is anti-national. While Lenin, Mao, Gramsci and Togliatti “had their roots in the history, tradition and ethos of their own countries and thus creatively applied Marxist theory to the environmental conditions prevailing there”, our communists “rubbished” India’s “entire past and all its traditions and thoughts”. The violence of Maoist rebels without a cause reflects that alienation.
The “instinctive loyalty” that Mohit Sen noted in his autobiography made communists look to Moscow at every turn. Sen mentions Harry Politt, the British Communist Party secretary, instructing the CPI that the Communist International had decided that World War II “had become a people’s war”. For Jolly, the war against fascism should always have been the Indian people’s war — regardless of Soviet participation — though “only a national government could rally the people in favour of the war effort”.
The Kauls lived during that decade on fading hopes of the revolution and the party’s monthly stipend of Rs 60 each. Manikuntala Sen’s salary as a Vidhan Sabha member (1952-1962) went straight into the CPI’s coffers. What preyed on her mind was the frustration of listening to people’s woes, knowing what should be done but being unable to do it even though her constituents imagined she was a fount of power. Jolly looks back on those years when he was the CPI’s Calcutta district secretary, member of the party’s provincial committee and executive, and of its national council with “no feeling of regret, no sense of years wasted, no anguish because of what might have been”.
His second incarnation reversed Piloo Mody’s old chestnut about someone who was unfit even for journalism becoming a politician. Jolly went from politics to journalism, working for a small news agency, and then to the third stage of his career as an executive with Indian Oil. Those 12 or 13 years in the corporate world prompted my peon, a Marxist activist, to muse one day when a suited and booted Jolly visited my office that his “siddhanth” had gone awry. Jolly was proud to be elected president of the Public Relations Society of India, enjoyed travelling in Europe and even “took dancing lessons from a professional dance teacher”, impervious to the sneers of colleagues that he “was having a jolly time”.
The people and matters he talked about in those days made me wonder that if those were his goals, why did he disappoint parental aspiration in the first place by refusing to sit for the ICS? The contributors to The God That Failed followed the same scholastic pursuits they would have done if their god hadn’t failed. But the dramatic transformation of India’s ex-revolutionaries suggests there is something in the definition of communists as capitalists who haven’t made it. Perhaps they are the political equivalent of what used to be called “Rice Christians”. Jolly is too good even to notice that many of his former comrades appear to be determinedly making up for lost time.
Retiring from the company, he returned to journalism as editor of Capital, once the voice of Calcutta’s British managing agencies which could not survive contemporary India’s politics-driven avarice. That over, he slipped naturally back into his old frugality and has led an almost monastic existence since his wife died. A new life opened at the end of 2002 when Kanti Mehta, a veteran trade unionist, invited him to visit his Gandhi Labour Foundation in Puri. Jolly has been a regular visitor ever since, continuing the connection — teaching, editing and addressing meetings — even after Mehta died in 2007.
Douglas Hyde, author of I Believed: The Autobiography of a Former British Communist, described his journey from Communism to Catholicism as part of the same quest. “I haven’t lived two lives,” Hyde wrote shortly before his death. “There has been a continuum which is the most meaningful thing to me.” Jolly’s testament echoes that faith. “My dream is still the same… It can only be realized if you take the path of spirituality.” At 89, and with an unmended broken rib, he is still waiting for the revolution that will begin with the self. I am waiting to read In Search of a Better World.
Amlan Datta thought Jolly’s evolution had “a wider significance for the history of this age”. It is certainly pertinent for floundering communists. Nationally, the Left Front serves China’s interests by thwarting many Central initiatives. In Bengal, it is helplessly caught between Mamata and Maoists. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee once said in Singapore his motto was “Reform, Perform or Perish.” The last seems Indian communism’s most likely fate.