By: Sitaram Yechury
Comrade Surjeet is no more.
A flood of memories overwhelm me as I start to write this. I met him first in 1973, 35 years ago. A full assessment of his life and work will surely be made in the coming days. Suffice it to say that he was one of the pioneers of the communist movement in India, a kisan leader, one who relentlessly fought against all deviations to uphold the revolutionary content of Marxism-Leninism and a master tactician. He was always quicksilver, thought on his feet, leaving his political adversaries at least two moves behind.
Surjeet was drawn into the freedom movement as a teenager inspired by the activities of Bhagat Singh and his associates - an inspiration that remained till his death. He was asked by some authorities to give his date of birth. Even his mother, as was the norm those days, did not remember the date but remembered the year of birth as 1916. Since some date had to be given, he had chosen March 23, the day Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged by the British, as his birthday. It is, indeed, fitting that ashes of his mortal remains were submerged in the Sutlej river at the same place where the British clandestinely tried to dispose off the bodies of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues fearing a public upsurge.
When I came into the Central Committee in 1984 and started working for the Party's Centre after relinquishing the presidentship of the SFI in 1986, I was assigned the responsibility to assist him (Surjeet was head of the International Department in the Party then). One area of working with him and the consequent exposure is in dealing with the international communist movement and parties.
Soon after the struggle against revisionism in the Indian communist movement culminated with the formation of the CPI(M) in 1964, Comrade Surjeet was sent by the Party to explain our ideological positions to fraternal parties abroad. Surjeet remained very disappointed that though many parties sympathetically evaluated CPI(M)'s positions, but were hesitant to formally recognise two communist parties in India. In London, he told me once, the legendary Rajni Palme Dutt told Surjeet not to waste his time, but return home and work amongst the Indian people, “only when the Party becomes politically influential and powerful, will fraternal parties establish relations with the CPI(M)”. How true this turned out to be! It is only after the defeat of the Emergency and the 1977 general elections, when the CPI(M) emerged as the largest Left party in the country and formed state governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura that formal fraternal relations with the international communist parties were established.
I still recollect how he told Mikhail Gorbachev (in 1987 in Moscow, on the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution, with EMS Namboodiripad, then general secretary and me on the other side) - with a straight face - that Gorbachev's thesis “is wrong” and has the danger of “undermining the Soviet Union and derailing the communist movement internationally”. Surjeet was always sad that the CPI(M)'s assessment was vindicated.
Soon after the defeat of the Emergency, in India, CPI(M) realised that the days of single-party rule were over. And in the possible coalitions that were to emerge, the Left needed to position itself and play an important role, to help steer the course of Indian politics. CPI(M) remains deeply committed to the fact that the future of communism in India is integrally and inseparably linked with the future of India itself as a secular, democratic republic. All the combinations that Comrade Surjeet helped forge had this singular aim, to defend and strengthen India's plurality. It was his spontaneous offer to support the VP Singh government from outside, that forced the BJP to do likewise, and not join it. His confidence that the secular parties will remain together in the United Front (in 1996) that was formed post-elections despite the BJP being the single-largest party and being called to form the government, was also borne out by the BJP having to demit office after 13 days.
Though he fully backed Jyoti Basu's candidature for prime ministership, it was again, the remarkable strength of character of both Comrade Surjeet and Comrade Basu, that they cheerfully abided by the Party's decision, that disagreed with them. Having been assigned by the Party, to be with him in the Steering Committee of the United Front, I could see the way he would deal with the other parties, never losing track of the fundamental objectives of safeguarding the secular fabric of India. He would often tell me his experiences of Partition and longingly of his desire to ride his bicycle once again from Lahore to Amritsar as he did in his youth in undivided India. Finally, only a few years before he died, he managed to visit Pakistan (and was feted by Musharraf). Somewhere deep within him there always was the pain at having lost lives in the communal carnage that he had seen in 1947 - and this is what made him always work tirelessly towards a 'secular' polity, a sentiment perhaps not often understood or appreciated enough by a generation which has been luckier.
He uncompromisingly led the Party in the fight against Khalistani separatism and terror during the eighties, and provided both the strength and inspiration for a Party which lost at least 200 of its leading comrades (apart from numerous other sympathisers who were martyred in that dark period). Surjeet's greatest strength was his ability, as a true Marxist, to evaluate concrete conditions with his head on his shoulders and to never be surprised by them.
For all the power he represented and the positions he held, Surjeet remained quintessentially the simple Punjab peasant, into whose family he was born. In Moscow and in Beijing, trips we undertook together attending party conferences, he would knock on my door in the morning and say “tea is ready”, which he would prepare using the hot water in the washroom taps, or tell me to not buy a pair of shoes I needed, as “back home, I have an extra pair which you can use.”
His concern for Party wholetimers was very touching. If anyone was unable to make both ends meet, he would write an article (in the “bourgeois press”) and give the comrade the cheque he would get as remuneration, quietly.
Having been denied the opportunity and the wherewithal to have had a formal education, he nevertheless pursued writing, and acquired the psedudonym 'Surjeet' - his original name being just Harkishan Singh. Having been arrested for hoisting the tricolour when he had just entered his teens, he spent many years behind bars and underground, fighting the British. The story goes that he was whisked away minutes after his wedding by the police in British India and kept in solitary confinement. Upon his return eight years later, his wife had to be pointed out to him ! Pritam Kaur, his wonderful and stoic wife, remains as committed to her companion and his cause to the day.
Like all lofty visions, Surjeet's was actually very simple. A vast majority of India, he always felt, celebrates its diversity. Hence, it is perfectly possible to forge political alliances, reflecting this diverse and progressive reality. This confidence looked hopeless and thoroughly misplaced prior to the 2004 general elections. Yet, it threw up the UPA-Left combine that was forged post-elections.
These are some thoughts that come to mind as we wait to realise the depth of the void of Comrade Surjeet not being around, even for advice. His absence is not only a loss for the CPI(M), for the Left movement but for the Indian polity itself.
Long live Comrade Surjeet!