The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Passing of a scholar-politician

It will be fatuous to claim that time is out of joint. Nothing of the sort. Time present is regulated by co-ordinates qualitatively different from those in control of affairs even a couple of decades ago. The passing of the eminent scholar-politician, Hirendranath Mukherjee, therefore failed to bestir the national media, print as well as electronic. There was, besides, far more exciting fare on the day: a former Miss India had hanged herself in her Mumbai apartment. First things first.

Have a heart, the very idea of a scholar-politician sounds absurd in the current ambience. These days a politician turns into a celebrity either because he carries the halo of having committed a hundred murders or because of the other halo of having come to pots and pots of money through diverse, mostly extra-legal, means; sometimes he wears, proudly, both haloes. Hiren Mukherjee was an incongruity in this context. Moreover, he chose to live too long and, in the process, rendered himself into a greater irrelevance. His death was bereft of news value.

He, in short, was an anachronism. It is pointless to recollect that, half a century ago, Mukherjee was Jawaharlal Nehru’s favourite parliamentarian. Every time the communist member of parliament would participate in a debate, Nehru would remove himself from his South Block office and scamper into Parliament House; he could not possibly miss Hiren’s speech. What particularly drew the admiration of Nehru and others was the splendour of Hiren Mukherjee’s vocabulary and his total command over the manner in which he deployed it. His accent was impeccably Oxonian. That was the least part of it though. It was Mukherjee’s passion, welded onto his ideology, which mattered. To have passion, he was determined to prove, does not harm the cause of ideology; it enhances it. Those not subscribing to the ideology would still salute the integrity of this most passionate man.

Hiren Mukherjee’s oratorical skill was not confined to English alone. His Bengali diction was equally rich; his Urdu did not lag behind either. There was at least one occasion when, in the Lok Sabha, either needled by a colleague or yielding to the entreaty from another, he spoke in Sanskrit — the grammar faultless and the intonation perfect — for a full twenty-five minutes. That was one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Lok Sabha.

Passion is nonetheless an empty box. One needs faith and empathy with the cause to transform passion into a throbbing phenomenon. Hiren Mukherjee’s loyalty to the cause of the exploited millions was much more than just cerebral. He broke out of his class confines, whenever the compulsion arose, even while retaining the external norms of bourgeois existence. His civilization did not prevent him from taking headlong the establishment perpetrating umpteen blatant acts of indignity or injustice. He would write in English and Bengali with the same felicity with which he spoke in the two languages. He could have been, and on occasion was, a full-fledged man of letters. Whenever the need arose, he did not hesitate to turn himself into a hack of a pamphleteer, wielding his pen to mobilize social resistance against the forces of repression in society. The same urge would again impel him to engage in brisk trade union activity.

He would, with facile ease, wade in and wade out of shlokas from the Vedas and the Upanishads. These hymns provided him with a structure of morality which he could reconcile with the tenets of Marxism. The Vedas talked of the triumph of truth and goodness over evil and shoddy modus operandi. The socialist ethos, he would argue, says the same things, and with beautiful precision.

He trained as a barrister-at-law, and he sacrificed his profession for the sake of the party. He loved teaching and the company of colleagues and adorning students. The teaching career too came to a surcease once the party commissioned him for the parliamentary assignment. He took all this, as is the wont of a disciplined cadre, in a philosophical stride. In those halcyon days in the mid-Fifties a species of political glamour got attached to his name. Such celebrity status did not disorient him. He remained, all through, the donnish politician with an inflexible moral sense and an unflappable belief in the decencies of life. The collapse of the Soviet system shattered his inner dreams, but there was never any question of forsaking the faith. And he would still protest, outspokenly, whenever he would come across a gross act of misdemeanour on anybody’s part. A famous writer, for a time lionized by the left, was at the receiving end of Hiren Mukherjee’s severe tongue-lashing because he took for a shameful ride a lady who had once devoted her care and resources to advance his career. The constraint of past friendship did not deter Mukherjee from speaking against the writer. There was a relatively more recent instance: a minister of a state government with left credentials dared to write an out-of-turn letter to the Union government imploring the conferment of an official award on a shady businessman; a merciless Mukherjee made mincemeat of the erring minister in a public protest.

Marxism was his religion and he was not ashamed to wear it on his sleeve. No weather-cock, he would not be shaken from the moorings of his faith howsoever the external circumstances might change. The Communist Party of India had learned the lesson of its life while coping with Mukherjee’s orthodoxy in the wake of the revelations at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet party. What Nikita Khruschev told the party rank and file caused a major convulsion across the globe, including in India. The Indian party split, leading to the founding of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), away and distinct from the parent party. Hiren Mukherjee’s heart broke at the party’s division. While he stayed with the CPI, that did not stop him from extolling the greatness of Joseph Stalin, the true builder, in his judgment, of the Soviet Union. It was a most unusual spectacle: the CPI was embarrassed by Hiren Mukherjee’s Stalin idolatry, but could do little about it. Till the very end, Mukherjee remained as a bridge between the two parties, and perhaps had more adherents in the CPI(M) than in the CPI.

Another episode, even further in the past, comes to mind, June 1941, Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union; to the Indian comrades, the hitherto imperialist war was now transformed into a people’s war. Anything to save the USSR; partisans in Calcutta, Mumbai, Lucknow and Delhi were astir, units of the Friends of the Soviet Union cropped up in these centres, Hiren Mukherjee was in the limelight, mobilizing resources to go into the war effort that might, directly or otherwise, help the fighting masses of the Soviet Union. He edited a volume of essays in support of the Soviet cause and wrote a vibrant preface to it with the boldest invocation: “Yes, the Soviets are my fatherland.” The bulk of his countrymen would certainly not have gone along, but Hiren Mukherjee had both the courage of his conviction and the conviction of his courage. If the Soviet Union went down, he reasoned, it would be death knell for the working class across the continents. The Soviet Union was his fatherland, and he must shed his last blood to save it.

Tales of such strange rites cannot but baffle the present generation. The nation’s media know what is what: Hiren Mukherjee was an obsolete commodity, his death was a non-event.

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