India and the entire international communist movement lost a stalwart veteran of the struggle on 17 January 2010, when Comrade Jyoti Basu, the last surviving member of the first polit bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM) and the former Chief Minister of the state of West Bengal, passed away at the age of 95.
Basu’s passing is really the end of an era, as he was one of the last Indian politicians to have begun his work during the time of the freedom struggle against British colonial rule.
Born on 8 July 1914, although he came from a privileged and comfortable background, Basu was already inspired by the freedom struggle whilst still a schoolboy. He became a communist while studying law in England in the late 1930s, and, on returning to India, joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1940.
He began working in the railway workers trade union and in 1946 was elected to the Bengal legislative assembly from a railway constituency.
In 1951, he became a member of the Central Committee of the CPI and from 1953-61 he was secretary of the party’s provincial committee in West Bengal.
When US imperialism goaded India into a reactionary conflict with China in 1962, Basu was one of the prominent Indian communists who took a principled stance against it, and for this he was dubbed an ‘agent of China’ by sections of the Indian ruling class.
This, in turn, helped to bring various contradictions in the communist movement in India at that time to a head, and when, in 1964, the CPI(M) was founded in the context of a struggle against revisionism, Basu was one of the nine comrades elected to the first polit bureau, a position he held until his death.
After the sweeping victory of the Left Front, led by the CPI(M), in the 1977 state elections, which followed the period of autocratic rule under Mrs Gandhi’s emergency, Comrade Basu became the chief minister of West Bengal, a position he held continuously for more than 23 years, by far the longest period served by any state chief minister in independent India, until his party accepted his request to retire on grounds of old age. However, he stayed active in his party and among the working class until the very end.
As chief minister, Jyoti Basu was incorruptible, and he pioneered a radical programme of land reform, as well as championing secular values. His land-reform policies in turn led to a considerable increase in agricultural production. For example, between 1950-60, West Bengal’s compound annual rate of growth in rice production was a paltry 1.01 percent. Between 1980-95, the rate rose to 5.03 percent. This led Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist to observe in 1992:
“West Bengal – with a growth rate of over seven percent per annum in agricultural value added – can be described as the agricultural success story of the 1980s.” (Cited in ‘A Marxist and a Gentleman’ by Vijay Prashad, Himal South Asian, January 2010)
Comrade Basu came through many ordeals in his seven decades in the communist party. He spent a total of three and a half years in prison and two years underground. Never wavering in his belief in Marxism Leninism, he stood up to the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and other countries and attempted to find a way forward. He gave his support to China, Vietnam, Cuba and Korea in sticking to the road of socialism.
Comrade Basu was won to Marxism Leninism through his association with such leaders of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) as Harry Pollit, Rajni Palme Dutt and Ben Bradley. However, although he engaged in a great deal of political work whilst a student in England, Comrade Pollit dissuaded him from formally joining the CPGB, so as not to jeopardise his security on his return to India, where he was determined to become a full-timer in the communist party, a vocation to which the seven ensuing decades of his life was indeed dedicated.
The CPGB-ML expressed its respect and mourning for Comrade Basu in a message of condolences to the CPI(M).
On Sunday 24 January, a sizeable memorial meeting was held in the Dominion Centre, Southall, at which representatives of several organisations paid tribute to the late Comrade Jyoti Basu. The tribute on behalf of the CPGB-ML was given by Comrade Harpal Brar.