Controversies that dogged the pragmatic chief minister

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By BISWAJIT ROY
  • Published 18.01.10
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Unlike Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Jyoti Basu was never known as a politician who would court controversy.

The CPM patriarch will be remembered more as the middle-roader whose strength lay in common sense, pragmatism and an ability to carry others along with him.

Yet several controversies erupted during his 23-and-a-half-year tenure as chief minister.

Marichjhapi firing

The first big controversy came within months of the Left assuming power in 1977, when refugees from the former East Pakistan, settled in arid Dandakaranya, began migrating to Bengal.

The Bengal government goaded them to go back. Basu and the CPM accused “anti-Left forces” of instigating the refugees. The Janata Party, then in power at the Centre, and others accused Basu of betraying the refugees whose cause the Left had earlier championed.

On January 31, 1979, police opened fire at Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans when the migrants, who had built a thriving community life there, refused to leave.

The government admitted a few casualties but the Opposition alleged a cold-blooded carnage. Police boats and launches apparently encircled Marichjhapi and dumped bodies in the river, while many drowned while trying to flee.

The truth is yet to emerge after 32 years. The pre-television media were barred from the area on the day of the police crackdown, and the government ignored demands for a judicial inquiry.

In his memoirs, Basu doesn’t mention the police firing and its aftermath except for claiming that the refugees went back by May 1979 “after the state government’s tolerant and sustained efforts”.

Massacre and arms-drop

Basu and his party faced allegations of another “carnage” in 1982 when 17 members of the Ananda Marg, a Hindu religious cult, were charred to death on Bijan Setu near Ballygunge station, allegedly by a CPM-led mob that ostensibly took them to be kidnappers.

The CPM-Ananda Marg feud again rocked the nation after the mysterious air-drop of virtually an entire arsenal near the cult headquarters in Purulia in December 1995. Basu and his party alleged a foreign plot to topple the ruling communists and accused the Centre of keeping the state in the dark despite having prior intelligence.

‘Stepmother’ plea

Worried that Indira Gandhi would destabilise the Bengal government, if not topple it outright, after she returned to power in 1980, the Left Front began a bitter campaign against the Centre’s “step-motherly discrimination against Bengal” and demanded more power for the states. It remained a constant theme and excuse for years.

English and education

The decision to ban English from primary education in government schools triggered a huge controversy over the CPM’s intervention in education. Basu, an alumnus of Loreto and St Xavier’s, was said to be sceptical about the move but couldn’t prevail on the powerful state party secretary, Promode Dasgupta. The folly was amended only at the beginning of the new millennium after Bhattacharjee took over.

In 1983, Basu and his party resumed their clashes with new Bengal governor A.P. Sharma after he appointed vice-chancellors to the Calcutta and Burdwan Universities overruling the CPM.

Favouritism flak

Basu’s administrative and policy decisions sometimes triggered complaints of favouritism and nepotism.

In 1988, the trouble came from within the government. Basu’s PWD minister and long-time comrade Jatin Chakraborty of the RSP accused him of favouring Bengal Lamp over its competitors because his son Chandan was associated with the company.

Basu denied the charge and wanted Chakraborty to step down after the minister remained “stubborn”. The RSP first threatened to quit the ministry but later sided with Basu and expelled the minister, who resigned from the cabinet.

Complaints of favouritism later cropped up over the plot allotments in Salt Lake, leading to a Supreme Court notice to Basu and others in 2006.

Ally trouble

Basu’s towering personality and charisma often subdued the murmurs of dissent from allies on policy decisions. Even then, occasional outbursts revealed the tension, such as RSP minister Debabrata Banerjee’s description of the CPM as “social fascists”, an epithet that Maoist top gun Kishanji uses today.

Crime and police

The Opposition accused Basu of insensitivity to crimes against women, and slammed him for condoning the CPM’s strong-arm tactics and misuse of police power to target rival parties.

The gruesome attack on a car carrying women health officials and the killing of one of them and the driver by criminals off EM Bypass in May 1990 caused public outrage. But people were shocked even more at the latent indifference in Basu’s reported initial reaction — comments that he later denied.

The alleged rape of a destitute woman by policemen at Calcutta’s Phoolbagan police station area in the early ’90s too raised a furore.

Mamata-baiting

As Mamata Banerjee grew to become a perennial thorn in the CPM’s flesh since the late ’80s, Basu hardly let a chance to belittle her pass. He often ridiculed her for holding a “fake” doctorate.

Mamata, for all her recent “daughterly concerns for the father figure”, had bitterly clashed with Basu when he was in power. The CPM-Mamata acrimony reached flash point after CPM goons attacked her close to her south Calcutta home in 1993.

The relations turned uglier the same year when Mamata, then a junior minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government, staged a sit-in before Basu’s chamber at Writers’ demanding a meeting to seek justice for a hearing-and-speech-impaired woman, Deepali Basak, allegedly raped by a CPM man. The police evicted her forcibly, triggering a long war of attrition between her and the CPM.

Thirteen people died in police firing on July 21, 1993, after a violent gathering of the Mamata-led Youth Congress laid siege to Writers’. Basu justified the firing.

Industry lag

Basu was accused of lacking the courage to take “hard decisions” on sick public-sector units, and to inject life into the state’s stagnating industrial scene. But his supporters cited his bold moves in 1985, when he pushed through his plan for joint ventures with the private sector and courted foreign direct investment at the 12th CPM congress despite the scepticism of many in the party and the front.

Controversy raged within the Left when he declared his industrial policy in 1994, seeing a new opportunity to revive industry in Bengal after the Rao government dismantled the licence raj.

Bhattacharjee and Nirupam Sen, in their battles with critics within the party and the front, have often insisted their post-2006 industrialisation drive merely continued the Basu legacy.

Both have cited Basu’s “sustained fight” with the Centre, during Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s tenures, over Haldia Petrochemical, the first mega-project during Basu’s term, the electronic complex in Salt Lake, and the Bakreswar thermal power station.

Buddha, Benoy blows

Bhattacharjee created a crisis for Basu when he resigned from the government in 1993 after the chief minister disapproved of the way he dealt with bureaucrats. Another blow came from the No. 2 in the ministry, the spartan Benoy Choudhury, a Gandhian turned communist who called the government “choreder sarkar (thieves’ government)” in the late ’90s.

Caravan goes on

For all the controversies, the Opposition couldn’t throw a serious enough challenge to Basu. The land reforms and the implementation of the panchayati raj remained his crowning glories, helping the Left consolidate its rural base and giving a fillip to farm productivity.

Inside his party, the no-nonsense Basu was neither known for his interest in ideological hair-splitting nor in lobbying for factional support to establish his opinion. He remained almost unchallenged both in the government and the party after Dasgupta’s death in 1982.

It was his stature and personal rapport with the Gandhi family that helped his government tame the Subash Ghisingh-led Gorkhaland agitation of the mid-1980s, the first post-Independence threat to Bengal’s territorial integrity.