A hundred years ago, Bhupendra Nath Basu was an important name in Indian politics. He represented the new breed of aristocracy spawned by burgeoning new professions such as law and medicine. A leading figure at the Calcutta bar, Basu was an ardent nationalist. Calcutta was still the country’s capital, with the viceroy and governor-general in residence here, right next door to the high court. A proud Bengali and a proud Indian, Basu not surprisingly emerged as one of the more assertive spokesmen of the Indian National Congress, pestering the administration with a regular flow of representations advocating the nationalist cause. While refusing the offer of a knighthood for fear it might cramp his style, Basu at the same time shunned the extreme vocabulary, merely cherishing the hope that the foreign rulers would see reason and begin transferring power to native sons, otherwise trouble might brew. He found time among his other activities to establish the Indian Liberal Federation; it was not quite a separate political party, more a pressure group within the Congress, of which he was elected president for one term.
An aristocrat needed a palace to live in, Basu and his brothers built an imposing mansion with a sprawling lawn in the heart of Shyambazar, one of Calcutta’s northern precincts. It was all briskness in that house, with a constant stream of visitors: Basu’s colleagues in the legal profession, political leaders of different shades, social reformers, literary figures. Children growing up in that house absorbed a lot from those kind of frenzied goings-on. It would have been quite on the cards if most of the family’s offspring had toyed with the idea of choosing a career in politics. But no, most of the members of the new generation decided to play it safe: they either joined the family law firm or enrolled as a junior under some other legal luminary or opted for a stodgy career in the civil service or were picked by this or that British commercial firm which ensured them a cosy bourgeois existence.
Only three of them turned political. The period was the 1930s; given the family background and the contemporary scene, they could have easily joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s admiring flock or even preferred to be with the right-wingers in the Congress. Something went awry. Each of these three youngsters, one a grandson of Bhupendra Nath Basu and the other two his grandnephews, discovered the Marxist path and went to the communist party. Basu was a radical in his time; perhaps that radicalism had an echo in his descendents.
The cousins joining the communist cause were, however, temperamentally different from one other. One cousin, Arun, perhaps best known outside Calcutta and Bengal, was indeed very remote from the other two. While the rest of the brats from the family went to the humdrum Bengali-medium school next door, Arun was sent to a school in South Calcutta run by foreign missionaries. He picked up a chipped accent and, deviating from the family norm, spelled his surname ‘Bose’ instead of ‘Basu’. Reserved and an introvert, he did not mix easily. Arun Bose nonetheless must have found his own route to Marxism, for when he arrived at Cambridge to do the economics tripos, Maurice Dobb was bowled over by the precision of his mind and his ability to differentiate sense from nonsense. Dobb spoke to Rajani Palme Dutt and Dutt spoke to Harry Pollitt. Arun Bose was inducted into the Communist Party of Great Britain. Pollitt, however, thought he would be a more valuable asset to the Indian party and recommended him in glowing terms to P.C. Joshi, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India. Joshi took Arun Bose as the answer to his prayer for an intellectual ballast in the party and did something altogether staggering. Bose was straightaway nominated into the party’s central committee; he was yet to reach his thirties. The sequel was unhappy. Bose’s lingo and style of functioning irritated some comrades; he himself, too, must have found the grime and dust of grassroot activism to be not exactly his cup of tea. Retreating to academia, he taught for long years in a Delhi college and wrote learned tracts on Marxist economic theories that were widely appreciated in learned circles overseas. He returned to Calcutta on retirement, remaining more of a recluse till his passing a decade ago. Although without any party links, he remained a committed communist till his last breath.
Another of the cousins, Sunil Kumar Basu, better known by his nickname Katu, was a contrast. He had no foreign education, but was extraordinarily well-read and sophisticated, attributes he supplemented by an innate kindliness. A party wholetimer while still in his teens, he went underground when the party was declared illegal, was in and out of prison, suffering all the attendant hardships. The smile on his lips and the elegance of his manners though were always there. He discovered his special mission when the party assigned him the responsibility of restructuring its publications unit. Katu Basu went about it in his own quiet way and built the National Book Agency into a solid business outfit, commissioning the appropriate people to write the kind of books that would serve the party’s cause, and establishing a liaison with publishers abroad with an identical or similar ideological point of view. All this led to a gushing inflow of socialist literature from all over the world. Katu Basu died while still in his early sixties, a great loss to his party which the party is perhaps yet to realize.
The third Basu cousin to pledge himself to the Marxist cause was, as far as metabolism was concerned, again far distant from the other two. There was little of what passes as sophistication in Kamal Kumar Basu (picture). He was a homespun Bengali, took a law degree from the University of Calcutta and worked perfunctorily for the family’s attorney firm. With grand, feudal, yet most benign manners, he knew about everybody in the neighbourhood and everybody in the neighbourhood adored him. An intense lover of sports, Kamal Basu was totally devoted to the hoary Mohun Bagan Club and could go to any length to further its interests. One of his major disappointments in life was his failure to get elected to the post of chief executive of the club; a majority of the club members were worried what dire catastrophe would await them if a communist gained control of the club and thereby besmirch its nationalist credentials. Kamal Basu lost the poll for the position; his loyalty to the club though did not waver.
He had two other, near-parochial, passions. Proud of his north Calcutta lineage, he believed most of the gains accruing from the so-called Bengal renaissance were because of the contributions of residents in that area, which was originally the village Sutanuti, where the British had first settled. He made almost a fetish of this conviction and presided, with great solemnity, over the activities of a cultural body known as the Sutanuti Parishad.
He was equally keen to ensure that the role of his grandfather, Bhupendra Nath Basu, in the national freedom movement did not get totally obliterated from public memory. All that existed of Basu’s Indian Liberal Federation was a dilapidated lecture hall in a gone-to-seed building. Kamal Basu contributed from his own resources so that both could be renovated, and took immense pleasure in chairing the proceedings of the Federation Hall.
These inclinations and idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, Kamal Basu was the loyalest foot soldier of the communist party; always at its beck and call. Even more remarkably, within the party, he belonged to what in the jargon is described as ‘extremist’. Contributing funds, rendering legal advice, giving shelter to comrades on the run from the forces of law and order, Kamal Basu was in all seasons the party’s rescuer of last resort.
The party sent him to the country’s first Parliament in 1952 and many years later, made him mayor of Calcutta for two terms. In between, there was an occasion when it asked him to stand for election to the state assembly from a rural constituency where the Naxalites had entrenched themselves and had put up a formidable candidature. Kamal Basu knew he did not have the faintest chance of winning. The party’s word was, however, law. He went down cheerfully to heavy defeat.
And yet, in the party’s inner struggles, he would dare to oppose the established leadership if his Marxist conscience would so guide him. When, in the wake of the border fray with China in the 1960s, a large number of partymen were arbitrarily arrested, the demoralized lot who took temporary charge of the party ordered party members not to campaign for the release of their comrades. Kamal Basu was furious. He organized an open revolt which had several consequences, including the final split in the party.
To quote another instance. Already well in his eighties, he was shocked that the Left Front government and the party were abetting the Centre’s initiative to abolish sales taxation, by far the prime source of revenue for the states, and have it substituted by a value added tax drawn up by New Delhi. Without the least hesitation, he joined the ranks of those who had launched a campaign against the move.
Kamal Basu died last month at the age of 94, bringing to an end the story of the Basu cousins, who pledged themselves to cross the class barrier. The horizon has shifted for the next generation. Kunal Basu, author of the bestselling fiction-turned-into-a-film, The Japanese Wife, is Katu Basu’s son.