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Mainstream, VOL LII No 27, June 28, 2014

Mohan Kumaramangalam — Cameos: An Old Comrade

Saturday 28 June 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

On May 31 this year it was the fortyfirst death anniversary of Mohan Kumaramangalam. On N.C.’s sixteenth death anniversary we reproduce the following tribute that the founder of this journal penned under the pseudonym ‘An Old Comrade’. M.K. and N.C. were indeed close comrades since their days in England in the 1930s and the friendship bloomed during their collective struggle in the communist movement; it was retained in subsequent years and even when Mohan joined the Indira Gandhi Cabinet as a Minister. He also played a major role in assisting N.C. behind-the-scenes to bring out Mainstream. This tribute appeared in the June 9, 1973 issue of this journal.

On the day of the funeral when thousands came to pay him their homage, there came many who had not seen him in life and who had not heard him speak in that beautiful metallic voice which could entrance any gathering, from Parlia-ment to mass meetings.

Why did they come, those who had little in common with him except being reared by the same motherland? This was because they had heard that he was the target of attack by the vested interests, that he boldly stood for the right of the elected representatives.

It was this aspect of Mohan as the redoubtable fighter against Reaction that won him laurels throughout his life. He first came into limelight in the mid-thirties not because of his Eton education but because of the fact that he was among the pioneers to instil into the militant student movement the content of the Left ideology which swept from Spain to China, from Britain to India.

Mohan Kumaramangalam was in a sense the representative of the best of our national movement. He did not falter before repression nor did he hesitate to sacrifice creature comforts for the cause he believed in. Today, he is perhaps known more as a competent Minister and a brilliant spokesman of the government on many issues. But the ground-work of this career was prepared in the early days when he faced the rigours of a life of total dedication, a life which spurned the luxury of a comfortable career for the spartan discipline and rigours of a soldier. Those who had known him in those early years and shared with him its toils and turmoils cannot but have a feeling that those were really the halcyon days which moulded the character of the man who is being mourned all over the country today.

The great quality he had was that he did not make a fetish of his sacrifice. It was for him—as for many others along with him—the right thing to do for the cause they thought to be just, and the sacrifice demanded for it knew no limit.

Mohan had spent long months in jail and longer months in the underground. But every-where he could adjust himself in a very natural and spontaneous manner despite the upper-set upbringing from which he came.

There was of course one advantage in his past: his parents also were part of the national movement and the influence of his mother was very perceptible. Recently at his Minister’s bungalow when I saw a picture of his mother in his study room, he related with the spontaneity of a child that an old friend of the family had reminded him recently of what his mother had written to him years ago, that she had dreamt that Mohan would be a Minister in the first Cabinet of independent India. That was, of course, not to be, because when independence came Mohan belonged to the ranks of revolutionaries who were forced into underground, and the powers that be, despite personal liking for the man, could not at that stage reconcile themselves to the compulsions of a progressive perspective.

In those early days there was a sense of close fraternity, a comradeship of unusual warmth. He had a great quality of being affectionate to all without affectation or superior airs. He was a very methodical person, very careful and tidy in his work, hard-working, and at the same time precise and straight in his writings.

He developed a capacity of doing a number of jobs at the same time. He would do a weekly review of the World War that was going on, while in the evening he might go to meet some affluent sympathiser and ask him to give regular donation to a party with an austere budget. I still remember going with him to some of the biggest newspaper offices in Bombay and some of these newsmen would not hesitate to come to the Party Headquarters—today they might be counted among the top income-brackets wallowing in anti-communism.

There was no tension in his behaviour, what-ever might have been the situation. Whether it was meeting Gandhiji on behalf of the Communist Party or facing the brunt of an attack on the Party Headquarters by hoodlums let loose by the S.K. Patils, Mohan never hesitated to be at his post with absolute confidence and behaving in the most natural fashion.

Wearing the dress that was part of the outfit of a Communist wholetimer in those days—khaki shorts and half-sleeve shirt, washed but unironed, and a pair of chappals to wear—Mohan toured all over the country without the least feeling of being out of place. When he came out of prison in 1942, he toured his own State of Madras and he told me of an interesting episode. There was a police informer always at his trail. After the second day, Mohan called him and enquired whether he was getting his meals all right and how much wage he was getting. The man became grateful to him and he used to keep one of the front seats for Mohan at the bus terminus. Two days later, Mohan was rather startled when he found that the bus driver and conductor were greeting him as if he was a police sahib because the police informer was reserving the seat for him and Mohan himself used to appear in khaki shirt and shorts. With hearty laughter he told me that he had to tell the informer no longer to act as his ADC.

In April 1943, he turned up at our place in Calcutta wearing the same khaki shirt and shorts and a bulging brief case in his hand as the bridegroom-to-be. My parents were shocked but Mohan could win them over with his boyish smile and utter frankness. When we went for the marr-iage registration, the Registrar was rather taken aback that a barrister son of the Subbaroyans, a product of English public school and Cambridge education, should turn up in such an attire. But in two minutes the tension was gone and the wedding was over. The only function we had that evening was a get-together of comrades for tea and some very simple sweets on the roof of the dilapidated building which used to house the Party Office in Calcutta those days.

What was more interesting was that in a few days’ time Mohan could make himself totally at home in his father-in-law’s place though it was run along the lines of a typical Bengali Hindu middle class joint family. There had never been any inhibition on his part just as there was no inebriation.

In 1948, whent the Communists took to a militant Left-sectarian line, they were forced into the underground, and from a journalist and Party agitator, Mohan turned into one of the key men in the underground organisational set-up. Here too there was no compunction in doing the simplest things, to serve others and relish the job in hand. The leaders some time might be severe to the point of rudeness but that would not affect him. He would stand all that because he thought it was the right thing to do.

There was a trait in Mohan’s character of being sudden in his decisions or extending total confidence to a person whom he might have happened to like. This could be seen many times in his life. In the Party sometimes it created unnecessary complications and even misunder-standings; but one thing about him was that if any comrade, however differently placed, had frankly told him that he was wrong, he might argue and argue but would not ascribe motives to a difference of opinion. I remember to have told him that it was wrong on his part to have sent in his resignation from the Communist Party after having accepted the post of Advocate-General of Madras. He should have consulted the Party and then on the basis of that consultation, should have taken the decision about accepting the offer. This was what he had done when a proposal had come a few years earlier that he might be made a Judge in the High Court. He consulted the Party, though, in spite of the Party having allowed him to be a Judge and thereby automatically resign from Party membership, he did not accept it on personal grounds. (Incidentally, the story published in a New Delhi daily after his death that he was keen on becoming a Judge was baseless, because I remember distinctly that he never expressed such an opinion, not certainly at the meeting which the writer of that piece made out having taken place in my presence.) Mohan argued with me very aggressively, being hurt on his name having been struck out of the Communist Party roll, but he could see the point that I wanted to make that he did not consult the Party to which he belonged before taking such a decision, a procedure which in any circumstance would be followed by a member of any political party whatever its character.

When he came to see me after his election victory in 1971, he asked me whether he should join the Cabinet since an offer had come. I thought he should make his presence felt in the Congress Party itself in which he was yet a stranger,
before he became a Minister. He listened to my arguments and, when a few days later I found that he had joined the Ministry, he made it a point to come and tell me why he thought he should join at that stage, though he agreed that he should take every opportunity of getting acquainted in the party from which he got elected. This came much later when his brilliant oratorical skill—no doubt unmatched in the whole country today—kept his party members spellbound, whether it was on the question of the Constitution amendment or on the appointment of a new Chief Justice.

True to the traditions of the Subbaroyans, Mohan lived a simple life, and in this Kalyani contributed as much. There was no protocol formality in the Minister’s house, as there were no constrictions of rigid table manners, as he used to sit down for his meals with his family—and sometimes friends would drop in—in the most informal fashion. He had many simple qualities for which he looked almost like a schoolboy. He was fond of books. He could enjoy heartily a joke at his own expense. He had a passion for cricket as was natural for a Subba-royan, and he was fond of his dogs, treating them with the affection that he would bestow on his children.

Mohan’s life in a sense reflected the struggle for reconciliation between the national main-stream and a militant forward-looking radical ideology. He left the Communist Party but he did not become an anti-Communist. In reality, he was an individualist while at the same time he had a large heart. He was not an introvert, and he never claimed to be a high-brow intellectual.

In his arguments there was a down-to-earth approach. From an effective agitator to a first class lawyer and then on to an administrator with an eye for details, Mohan Kumaramangalam left behind him an indelible mark on the momentous times through which he passed. He combined in him the perspective of a conscious political being with the capacity to master with meticulous care the details of management over some of the most challenging portfolios that came his way, namely, Steel, Heavy Engineering and Mines.

He was not a Minister with a day labourer’s approach. He could dare to think in terms of radicalisation and that was why he took the risk of going in for nationalisation of one of the most ravaged industries in the country—coal mining.

It was not easy for a single person to command the confidence of political colleagues through his powers of persuasion while at the same time command the respect of technocrats and officials with his capacity to understand problems and propose measures in tune with the objective of building a new social order. That is why, in the last few months of his life he had to withstand the most withering attack from the organs of the vested interests, while in the days that followed his tragic departure, he could extract respect and admiration even from those who were his sworn adversaries.

It is not easy to find many of Mohan’s type in the politics of India today.

(Mainstream, June 9, 1973)