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OBITUARY

One of a rare breed

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

Nripen Chakraborty, 1905-2004.

NRIPEN CHAKRABORTY, the former Chief Minister of Tripura and a pioneer of the Communist movement in India, belonged to a rare breed of politicians whose number is dwindling fast. In his death on December 25, Indian politics lost one of the last direct links it had with the experience of the freedom struggle. Nripen Da, as his admirers called him, translated the qualities and values of the freedom movement into everyday politics in the post-Independence period.

N. SRIDHARAN

Nripen Chakraborty was 100 years old when he died and had been inactive politically over the past decade or so. But throughout the 70-odd years he remained an active politician, his political activities were founded on commitment and responsibility towards the people, which rejected the pursuit of politics as a career or as a means to acquire personal power and riches.

His tenure as the Chief Minister of Tripura from 1978 to 1988 bore ample testimony to this. When this Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader moved into the Chief Minister's official residence in 1978, he carried his belongings in a single tin trunk. A decade later, when Nripen Chakraborty moved out of the Chief Minister's residence into a room in the MLA's hostel, the only material object that went out with him in a cycle-rickshaw was the same tin trunk. Here was a man who headed a State government for 10 years and yet had not made a single new material acquisition. This extraordinary exit from office was much written about in the media of the late 1980s, especially in the backdrop of stories about burgeoning corruption in high places.

But for those who knew Nripen Da well, this was not something out of the ordinary. The veteran Communist was indeed the personification of simple, spartan living. His overarching concern was the need to improve the lives of people, not his own welfare. In fact, many of his colleagues and well-wishers thought that he pursued this concern almost to paranoid limits. I had had intermittent interactions with him since the early 1980s, the discussions at most of these meetings were dominated by this `constant concern'.

The very first meeting I had with Nripen Chakraborty is worth recounting for this very reason. He had been elected as Chief Minister for the second time and I had sought an interview. He granted it, and since I could not think of better way of beginning the interview I started off by congratulating him on his re-election. Before I could finish the sentence, Nripen Da interjected and began a to chide me. And what was my misdeed? I had chosen to congratulate him.

He directed a barrage of questions at me: "How can you congratulate me? Why should you do that? Do you know that I have not been able to do much for the State's people in my first tenure? Do you know that nearly 60 per cent of Tripura's population does not have clean drinking water? Do you know that electricity is yet to reach hundreds of villages in this small State? Do you know that there are thousands who still do not get nutritious food?". In the midst of this dressing down I apologised for my misdemeanour and promised to highlight only the problems that Tripura faced.

This correspondent has persisted as a journalist for nearly two decades after that meeting, but is yet to see another politician who gets annoyed for acknowledging and praising his or her electoral victories. What could be behind this special trait and this unique motivation? The answer, say many of his former colleagues, lies in the manner Nripen Da led his personal life.

Although Nripendralal Chakraborty was born into an educated, middle class family of Bikrampur in Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) on April 4, 1905, his life, especially as a young man, was indeed arduous and even perilous. "You name any difficult life situation and sure enough Nripen Da must have gone through something similar, told CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Biman Bose to this correspondent years ago.

Even a perfunctory perusal of Nripen Chakraborty's biodata underscores Bose's observation. He had worked as a labourer in jute mills, a coolie, a rickshaw-puller, a teacher among tribal people, and a journalist. He had a keen interest in literature, music, gardening, child psychology and cooking. As a thinker and as a freedom fighter, he was initially influenced by Gandhism and later by the revolutionary ideals and Marxism. If the Gandhian period was marked by peaceful satyagrahas and marches, the revolutionary period was distinguished by underground activities, trade union work, life in jails and daring jailbreaks. Post-Independence, he became a towering personality in Tripura politics, virtually shaping the political history of the State.

It was while doing his post-graduation at the Bangabasi College in Calcutta (now Kolkata) that he became deeply involved with the freedom struggle. The beginning was through the Gandhian organisation Abhay Ashram. Such was his dedication to the activities of the Ashram that he was sent to participate in the Dandi March in 1930. But, as Nripen Chakraborty himself used to say often, "his quest for a better world order made him disillusioned with Gandhian principles, particularly its vision on economic issues".

The disillusionment set in during the early 1930s itself and Nripen Chakraborty got attracted to the ideas of extremist leftist leader Sitish Banerjee. His association with Banerjee started in 1932, and in a matter of three years he had become one of the early activists of the Communist Party of India (CPI). The firebrand trade union leader and fiery speaker was elevated in less than a year to an official position, as the joint secretary of the Bengal Provincial Communist Party along with the famous historian Hirendranath Mukherjee. Recounting his experiences in the early days of the CPI, Nripen Da used to joke that he was "senior" to both Jyoti Basu and the late Parmod Das Gupta, two other legendary Communist leaders from Bengal.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the CPI was banned and Nripen Chakraborty went underground. He was briefly in touch with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA) during this period. His stint as a journalist with the Bengali newspaper Ananda Bazar Patrika was also during these years. He was arrested by the British police in 1941 and sent to Presidency Jail in Calcutta. He was then interned at the Hijli Jail, where he effected the jailbreak. He remained underground again, for the next two years.

Although Nripen Chakraborty came overground in 1943, he again had to go underground in independent India when the CPI was banned in 1948. He also had to go to jail repeatedly in independent India in 1962, 1965 and 1975, the last time during the infamous Emergency.

It was in 1950 that Nripen Chakraborty shifted his base to Tripura, following instructions from the CPI. Nripen Da often remembered his three other comrades in arms - Kongsari Halder, Dr. Bijoy Bose and Bipul Chowdhury - who were part of the early organisational activities in Tripura. Although the CPI was active in Tripura since 1938, it was unable to organise the significant tribal population of the State. The party was of the view that efforts were being made by some socio-political forces close to the Congress and some international agencies to drive a wedge between the tribal population and the Bengali-speaking community of the State. Nripen Chakraborty's brief was to take up these challenges and build up the party.

He took up this task with utmost efficiency. He slowly and steadily built up among the tribal people confidence in the party. His fluency in the tribal language of Kokborok was so good that the tribal people started looking up to him as one of their own. He was fondly called "Jagat-da" (supreme leader) by them, and in a span of just 10 years he became the most popular leader among both the tribal people and the non-tribal people. In due course, the political, social and organisational initiatives taken by Nripen Chakraborty influenced the biggest tribal organisation of the State, the Tripura Rajya Gana Mukti Parishad led by Dasaratha Deb, which merged with the CPI.

The merger shaped the political history of Tripura. The CPI made steady inroads into the State legislature and Nripen Da was elected to the Assembly for seven consecutive terms, the first beginning in 1957 and the last in 1993. The "nefarious efforts" cited by the CPI in 1950s "to create a wedge between tribals and non-tribals" persisted during the first and second tenures of Nripen Chakraborty in the form of extremist attacks by militant tribal organisations and the not-so-tacit support it received from various quarters, including sections of the Congress government at the Centre. However, Nripen Chakraborty and his party withstood these machinations to a great extent and retained the CPI(M)'s political and organisational strength in Tripura.

His role as a leader who cemented social and communal harmony in the State was repeatedly hailed, particularly by the CPI(M). When the CPI(M) was formed in 1964 following a split in the CPI, Nripen Chakraborty not only stood firm with the CPI(M) but also was instrumental in taking the entire CPI unit of the State to the newly formed party. With his growing influence in the State, his responsibilities in the CPI(M)'s central leadership also increased. In 1972, he was inducted into the party's Central Committee and in 1984 he became a member of the Polit Bureau.

However, his standing within the CPI(M) plummeted sharply in the mid-1990s, and he was expelled from the party in 1995. By all indications, the expulsion was caused by the serious differences that Nripen Chakraborty had with his successor Chief Minister Dasrath Deb, who ironically was brought into the Communist firmament by Chakraborty himself, and with Jyoti Basu. One perception within the CPI(M) about these differences was that "in his old age Nripen Da had fallen prey to parliamentary deviations and illusions" . Another stream of opinion, however, held that Nripen Da had merely "succumbed to a kind of avuncular self-righteousness shown by almost all leaders who believe that they have to play a stellar role to keep things on course".

Biman Bose commented once that Nripen Chakraborty's views did not have majority support in the party structure and he was not ready to accept the fact as a disciplined functionary. Despite his expulsion, it is a fact that several Communist leaders and Ministers of various State governments sought Nripen Da out for advice and consultation. The CPI(M) restored his membership of the party two days before his death citing his "long service to the Communist movement". And Nripen Da's last rites were conducted in true communist spirit, with the red flag draped over his mortal remains. Undoubtedly, this was in the fitness of things, for a life so committed to the uplift of the people and so committed to Marxian ideals could not have been disowned by the largest Left party in the country's mainstream politics.