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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 22, May 16, 2009

Tribute: Vimla Dang

Monday 18 May 2009, by SC

The year was 1965. The India-Pakistan war had just come to an end. It was then that we travelled to Chheharta, the industrial suburb of Amritsar, which was bombed by the Pak Air Force during the war. And it is in Chheharta that one first met Vimla Dang and her husband, Satya Pal, the legendary Communist leaders of Punjab.

It was Vimlaji who helped us stay in Chheharta and travel to Khem Karam which was the graveyard of the Patton tanks the US had gifted to the Pakistan Army to be used against India. The Patton tanks were demobilised and incapacitated thanks to the unstinted help from the Soviet Union in the form of T-72 tanks which were instrumental in assisting the Indian Army to successfully resist Pakistan’s Patton offensive. One distintly remembers that evening in Khem Karan when sitting in his bunker the Sikh military officer narrated in graphic details the Indian jawans’ heroic exploits in that sector. [Incidentally, in his autobiography In the Line of Fire, Pakistan’s latest military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, now a private citizen having been forced to resign, has written how he felt “proud” on entering Khem Karan town following an offensive on September 7, 1965, adding : “Only dogs were barking: there was no sign of human life. I wrote my first letter during the war (from there) to my mother, proudly saying that I was writing from India.” He, however, has conveniently forgotten to write how the Indian Army recaptured Khem Karan from its Pakistani counterpart.]

If the Pakistan Army could not have its way in 1965, the Indian Armymen and T-72 tanks did play a pivotal role in such battles as the ones on the Khem Karan front where our armed forces fought back effectively after suffering initial reverses, but behind the battle-line there stood the second line of defence offered by civilians mobilised by Communists, among others; and in this endeavour Vimla Dang along with her husband Satya Pal contributed substantially with their dedicated work in organising the ordinary people, notably the working class, of the area behind the war efforts. One was privileged to testify to that selfless service by the Dangs and it was conveyed in a reportage in the Bengali periodical Compass (brought out by the veteran former RCPI leader Pannalal Dasgupta) by this writer who had just completed his graduation then and turned 20 years in age.

Born in December 1926 in Lahore, Vimla Bakaya had her early education in school and college in that city and later graduated from Wilson College, Bombay. She thereafter plunged into the students’ movement, and spent a few years at the headquarters of the International Students Union (IUS) in Pragua. She had earlier visited famine-stricken Bengal in 1943 as part of a team of Students Federation activists and seen for herself the indescribable tragedy wrought by a manmade famine under a heartless colonial administration that killed more than three million men, women and children while the Second World War was still in progress. She had also attended the first CPI Congress in Bombay in May-June 1943 as a member of the Punjab singing squad. Her eldest brother was Shashi Bakaya, a gifted revolutionary poet, who died at the young age of 25 in Bombay in September 1946.

On her return to India from Czechoslovakia, Vimla married Satya Pal Dang (whom she knew from Lahore) in April 1952 and a couple of years later they chose Chheharta as their field of work. Satya Pal and Vimla built up the Chheharta Municipal Committee brick by brick—it was indeed a model municipality in the State with its members reputed for their incorruptibility and probity in public life. Both of them headed the municipality in turns and as the body’s President Vimla paid special attention to the requirements of working women—thus Chheharta became the first town in the State to have a crèche.

Satya Pal won the Punjab Assembly elections from Amritsar West in 1967 and became a Communist Minister in the United Front Government in the State that year; he held the seat till 1980. Vimla on her part, won the seat back for the CPI in 1992;
both led the Communist group in the Punjab Assembly.

During the 1965 India-Pakistan war they selflessly helped to boost the war efforts and strengthen civil defence. But more importantly, they worked tirelessly against Khalistani secessionism-cum-terrorism in the 1980s braving all threats to their life. Simultaneously they did everything to maintain communal harmony at that critical period.

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Vimla was among the founders and organisers of the Punjab Istri Sabha set up in 1954. She also helped in setting up the Punjab Istri Sabha Relief Trust. One of the prime tasks of the Trust is to help educate hundreds of children who had lost their parents in war or at the hands of Khalistani militants.

For her outstanding social work the Padma Shri award was conferred on Vimla Dang in 1992. Satya Pal was honoured with the Padma Bhushan five years later, in 1997.

Till her last breath Vimla steadfastly worked among the people. Her last public act was to raise the Red flag at the Ekta Union, Chheharta office on May 1, 2009. Thereafter she fell ill suffering from dehydration and several ailments leading to her hospitalisation on May 6; she passed away peacefully in the morning of May 10, 2009.

Vimla Dang played an extraordinary role in building the women’s and workers’ movement in Punjab. She and her husband were members of the CPI National Council for long years but voluntarily retired from the body a few years ago due to old age thereby setting yet another example within the party leadership.

She along with Satya Pal Dang were close friends of Mainstream in which Satya Pal, like S.G. Sardesai and Mohit Sen, regularly contributed articles on various subjects till a few years ago. Some time back Vimlaji wrote a letter to the journal’s editor asking him to print the editorial in bigger print as the smaller print put considerable strain on the eyes, adding: “You know, how important Mainstream editorials are for both of us.”

Vimla and Satya Pal Dang, having set new standards of simple living and morality in public life, were legendary figures in the Left movement. Such dedicated souls are indeed rare in the communist movement today.

Mainstream offers its respectful homage to the abiding memory of Vimla Dang while sending heartfelt condolences to her lifelong companion, partner and comrade, Satya Pal.

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