'70s' nemesis, now comrade - Ex-Naxal leader Ashim Chatterjee on same side as Ray

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By SUJAN DUTTA in Calcutta
  • Published 24.04.06

Calcutta, April 24: Former chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray has offered to campaign for former Naxalite leader Ashim Chatterjee and re-script years of bloodshed in Bengal’s modern history.

Chatterjee is contesting on a Trinamul Congress symbol from Beliaghata constituency and Ray, who says he is not a member of any party now, is campaigning for Mamata Banerjee and her friends against the Left Front.

“I am not in active politics any more. I am 86 years old. But I believe the Congress is wedded to the Left because of compulsions at the Centre. In this context, I am campaigning for Mamata Banerjee because I believe she is the only person sincerely fighting against the CPM. I am with all of her allies, including Ashim Chatterjee. I am willing to campaign for him. But I do not think his constituency is on the list given to me,” Ray told The Telegraph in an interview.

Last week, the former chief minister, who ordered Ashim Chatterjee’s arrest and who is still held responsible for “atrocities” against Left activists of all hues during his 1972-1977 tenure,campaigned in Maniktala ? within earshot of adjoining Beliaghata.

When the question was put to Chatterjee, the former Naxalite leader was not a little stupefied.

In separate responses he first said “no” to such an offer. Later, he explained that “I do not want any support from the Congress in my campaign and Ray is a Congressman”.

The vision of Ray campaigning for Chatterjee is the equivalent of blasphemy in the language of Left radicals.

Azizul Haque, who knew Chatterjee even before the CPI(ML) was formed in 1969, was livid. “You should ask if he (Chatterjee) will contest elections also with Rabri Devi and Narendra Modi!”

In Chatterjee’s own constituency of Beliaghata, there are those who have not yet lived down the tragedies that overcame them in the 1970s. One of them is Nishith Bhattacharya, who formed the second central committee of the CPI(ML) with Azizul Haque after Charu Majumdar’s original party splintered.

Bhattacharya’s modest house is opposite the CIT quarters off Beliaghata Main Road. “In those quarters,” recalls Haque dramatically, “S.S. Ray’s police came and shot seven youths in cold blood. Then the constables tried to wash away the bloodstains but the stains remained. Ashim Chatterjee is now coming in to finish the job, broom in hand. The eyes of the dead and the martyred are watching".

Chatterjee, now 62, was arrested from Deogarh in Bihar in 1972. He was released in 1978.

A “reformed Naxalite”, he contested the elections in 1991 from Rashbehari, and lost, as a CPM-supported candidate. In 1995, his new outfit, the Communist Revolutionary League of India, was admitted into the Left Front but he was out of the coalition in the wake of a minor rebellion in the CPM by Saifuddin Choudhary.

“I was asked by somebody how come I am contesting elections after having supported the slogan of election boycott,” Chatterjee defends his position. “And I am surprised at the memory of people who recall my three or four years (from 1967 to 1971) of boycotting elections but conveniently forget my 40 years of association with mainstream politics.”

But Chatterjee, an alumnus of Presidency College, still sustains his image as the stormy petrel of seventies’ College Street. A handbill distributed by him among voters describes him as “a former Naxalite leader who has always been at the forefront of student movements, peasant movements and democratic rights movements”.

Chatterjee also heads a memorial committee that seeks to commemorate victims of the Cossipore-Baranagar massacre, one of several atrocities alleged to have been perpetrated by the police during Ray’s rule.

Such is the turn of the wheel that Chatterjee and Ray now speak the same language in politics.

“My aim in asking for votes is political, not electoral. I may lose in elections but I win in politics? But given the power equation between the Congress and the Left Front, the Congress cannot take a firm stand in Bengal. Therefore, I have entered into an alliance with the Trinamul,” says Chatterjee.

Asked if the bankruptcy of politics he accuses the Left of is also not applicable to him, he replies: “I am on a journey of exploration to find a democratic alternative.”

Says Ray: “The situation in Bengal today is such that it demands an end to the 30-year (Left) rule. I believe the Congress will not be able to say certain things against the CPM. Mamata, on the other hand, has given a call for all democratic forces to get together and oust the CPM.”

More than Ray’s it is Chatterjee’s shifting positions that is both a subject of ridicule and introspection among Bengal’s Left intelligentsia. Chatterjee and Ray have contributed to the politics of the state from antagonistic ends in the past but somehow their paths now converge.

Says political scientist Ranabir Samaddar of the Calcutta Research Group: “Insurgencies don’t die easily. The revival of the Maoist movement in Bengal shows that. But there aren’t too many options for the people of the past. You can choose to be a Medha Patkar, of course. Maybe Ashim Chatterjee’s problem is that he has to sustain his image as a Naxal without being a Naxalite."