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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 43, October 18, 2014

Bhupesh : Some Reminiscences

Monday 20 October 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

To write about somebody whom one has known for more than four decades—sometimes very closely—is not easy after his or her passing away. For me, Bhupesh Gupta was one whom I have known from the early beginnings of my active political involvement in the late thirties.

In the small group of young militant Indians in Britain more than forty years ago, groping for a revolutionary patch to the country’s freedom, Bhupesh was perhaps the only one who could really claim to have had the baptism of fire. In that group, few had initially come with any commitment to politics: some had tried unsuccessfully to get into the ICS, others like some of us looking forward to a quiet academic life, and still others marking their time to qualify for the Bar. But live encounter with the reality of being a citizen of a subject nation compounded with the urge to know the why and how of grinding poverty of the overwhelming mass of our countrymen, and still others seeking out a plausible answer to the question of motivation in history—all these took us to Marxism.

But Bhupesh came into our midst straight from the prison house of the imperial regime: joining in his school days the intrepid band of Bengal revolutionaries, miscalled terrorists. He had been held in detention for four years and more; and while in prison, he read Marxism and was convinced of its approach of moving the masses as being more effective than the heroism of revolutionary individualism. Bhupesh was not released from prison, but was put on the ship by the police and when it was about to set sail, his detention order was revoked; with that, he was served with a new order forbidding him from active participation in politics when abroad and restricting his movements within Britain.

But once Bhupesh reached London, he joined the clandestine group of Indian Communists, and we all used to look upto him since he alone amongst us had the actual experience of an active revolutionary in the country. His room at Belsiza Park was the hub of our group—no arm-chair chain-smoking but serious, intense discussion of national happenings and world developments, study of revolutionary theory and practice and also active participation in the India League’s propanganda work among the British public, pressing for India’s demand for complete independence. Despite poor health, a byproduct of his years in prison, Bhupesh was singularly active, eluding the British police. Quite often we used to stay overnight in his room—and occupy most of his large bed appro-priating the quilt or the blanket; the landlady would knock in the morning to find out “how many got into Mr Gupta’s bed”. Totally unper-turbed by such intrusion of friends and comrades, Bhupesh in no time became a beloved member of the fraternity.

Bhupesh’s circle however was not confined to Communists. Young and old, many others were drawn to him, though he was never the party-going type. His was never a narrow groove but a wide circle—much beyond the normal beat of a Communist. Right from those early days. I have noticed Bhupesh’s capacity to be friendly at the personal level with people drawn from many fields: although these were personal acquaintances, the relationship had never been non-political. For Bhupesh was a tireless crusader, he would do his best to win over even the most formidable adversary.

This way it was not surprising that he was very friendly with Feroze Gandhi and Indira Nehru—a friendship which survived many a storm. All the three of them returned home by the same boat during wartime.

Coming back, Bhupesh went straight into the Party’s central underground where he worked under P.C. Joshi for some time. In 1941 he came out in the open and became active in Bengal. He was one of the pioneers in setting up the Friends of the Soviet Union along with Jyoti Basu. From the days in Britain, both were close to each other—a close comradeship which continued uninterrupted until 1964, when the communist movement was split, Bhupesh choosing to stay with the CPI while Jyoti joined the leadership of the CPM. Even later, when the United Front Ministries were formed in Bengal in 1967-69, Bhupesh kept up his friendship with Jyoti though belonging to a different party. In fact, Jyoti Basu was the one CPM leader whom Bhupesh regarded as being nearest to him.

When the ban on the CPI was lifted in 1942, Bhupesh was in the forefront of the Janaraksha movement (people’s defence movement against scarcity and famine). This was the period when he took to public speaking: his was the style of a thunderer, very different from the more sophisticated oratory of today. But what struck in all that he used to say was a clear ring of utter sincerity.

This was Bhupesh’s forte, and it swayed many totally unexpectedly. During the Jana-raksha movement Bhupesh would go to all, big guns or small fries, so that the job in hand could be done. This brought him in contact with Suhrawardy who was the Chief Minister and one of the most dynamic figures in Muslim League politics. Suhrawardy’s admiration for Bhupesh transcended far beyond his dealings with the CPI, and Bhupesh could gatecrash any time into Suhrawardy’s house, day or night. This extraordinary friendship lasted for a long time and was one of the mainstays of the Left during the stormy days of communal tension that erupted after the war. By the time Independence came, Bhupesh had emerged as a young but significant political personality in Bengal. There was promise of many heights to conquer.

But the communist movement was led into disastrous channels by a leadership that was thoroughly sectarian itching for adverturism. Early in 1948 when the CPI Congress was about to take place, I recollect a conversation with Bhupesh who at that time used to stay with us: We were all brought up in the communist movement under the magnetic spell of P.C. Joshi’s tremendously human personality and so we were naturally perturbed by the blatant move to remove Joshi by a thoroughly opportunist combination of Ranadive with Dange (these two have been at daggers drawn for decades in Bombay much to the detriment of the communist movement there). Since Bhupesh had more experience of the revolutionary movement, I asked him how the ouster of Joshi would help the Party. Bhupesh’s reply, which I still remember, brought out his approach to politics: “Joshi’s removal is certainly a great blow for many us personally. But if the majority of the Party thinks that Joshi’s line is wrong, then to stand up for Joshi might be misunderstood as support for his line. I know from my own experience how ruthless political leaders could be, but you and I come from classes which are not proletarian, and our attachment to Joshi may be taken as the Subjective effection of our class ideology.”

This was the dilemma of not only Bhupesh. And yet with all his differences with PCJ, he never forgot him. When he passed away on November 9 last year, those around Joshi informed eminent Party leaders, but the one who turned up to take Joshi’s body from the hospital to his house was the very much ailing Bhupesh, while the better-off leaders did not find it convenient to be disturbed in a cold winter night, though next day there was no dearth of accolades for poor Joshi from the very same leaders.

In the sectarian underground set-up, Bhupesh was a misfit and those of us who happen to know some of the misdoings of the time can testify to the silent persecution that many had to suffer. Bhupesh was one of them—he was hardly given any assignment. It was therefore natural that when the sectarian leadership was thoroughly exposed, Bhupesh was in the forefront of those engaged in what is called, in communist parlance, inner-party struggle. Out of this struggle many of the present-day leaders of the communist movement emerged as all-India figures. Bhupesh was one of them.

In 1952, when the Rajya Sabha was set up, Bhupesh came by virtue of the Communist strength in the West Bengal Assembly. But neither his interest nor his standing was confined to West Bengal nor to the Communists. Bhupesh became a virtual tribune of the people. There are many ways of catching the limelight—Raj Narain style of semi-buffoonery or the muscle-flexing by the Sanjayites. Bhupesh came to eminence by his fearless courage to stand up against injustice or inequity or to uphold national dignity. One can narrate a hundred episodes bringing out Bhupesh’s dauntless fight within the Rajya Sabha. In fact, the Rajya Sabha, which at the outset was thought by many of us to be a superfluous body, was made amply relevant by Bhupesh’s ceaseless crusade for a thousand causes.

Watching him from the press gallery in those early days, I used to be intrigued by the more snobbish among my press colleagues; they were no doubt taken in by accents and pronunciations of many of the high-brows, but they could not but come under Bhupesh’s spell. It was not that Bhupesh was a profound thinker, one who would elaborate the perspective. By sheer hard work, mastery of details of each and every document he could lay his hands on, Bhupesh used to prepare for his parliamentary bouts.

His work table was full of paper, all sorted out and classified. He was his own private secretary. The room was always untidy but not the table where he would be working. He would take up any case of injustice that would reach him; but he had his own code of functioning. No case of a personal nature would be taken up in Parliament unless it had a national impli-cation. He would never recommend an indivi-dual case, not to speak of favours. He also used to make it a rule that he would take up a case with a Minister, not with the officials.

Bhupesh was one of the few Communist leaders who understood the importance of the press. He might attack a press baron or a servile editor, but he would never berate a reporter. He knew that whatever an MP had to say in Parliament assumes importance only when it moves the masses outside, and the main channel for that is the press.

Bhupesh was no builder of any mass movement, nor did he claim to be an organiser of the party. But he commanded the respect of one and all, in the party or outside, by his singular devotion to the politics of the underdog. His impeccable integrity was unquestioned. He might change position but only out of conviction. He might be inflexible in a stand but that was born out of conviction, not convenience.

In his personal life there was never even the breath of a compromise. An ascetic from the day he joined the revolutionaries in his student days. Bhupesh never had any attachment to any personal property. His clothes, his belongings, his home, he never let any sense of attachment trouble him. I have seen many well-known Communists, not to speak of politicains of other varieties; they may be influential, may sway millions, but few could come near Bhupesh’s total sacrifice. Bhupesh came from a zamindar family of Mymensingh but when he went underground, he signed off his share of property to one of his relatives lest the British Government forfeit it. When the party became legal, he was furious that the relative would not let him hand over his patrimony to the Party. When Indo-Pak negotiations led to the arrangement of compensation for evacuee pro-perty, Bhupesh refused to take any compensation. How could he do that when he was demanding the takeover of zamindaris without compen-sation—that was his argument.

Bhupesh was attached to one form of property: books. He would lend or borrow this precious commodity to and from friends and comrades he could trust. I still have one of his books which I value as a precious treasure.

As part of his philosophy of total sacrifice, Bhupesh never cared for his health. In British prison, he contracted bronchial ailment and suffered from sinus. We used to get angry when in London he never bothered to get himself treated. The same happened when he was afflicted with cancer. He suffered it with stoic fortitude, never letting others know that he had the fell disease. Just now I have received a letter from Justice Krishna Iyer who says: “On more than one occasion I had seen Bhupesh at meetings and other gatherings but was never able to make out that a battle of life and death was going on within.” I can think of no better case of a political leader who literally died in harness as Bhupesh Gupta.

Bhupesh was a very human personality. There was nothing of the protocol stiffness of a leader about him. He could crack a joke at his own expense: we used to tease him that he could not get married because he could not muster courage to propose to a girl, for fear of being jilted. Bhupesh enjoyed this as much as all of us.

If anybody fell ill, Bhupesh would make it a point to come and enquire. When my mother died, Bhupesh, whom my mother was very fond of, was the first to console, though others, equally close, made only formal condolences, if at all. He was fond of children and, more important, could win their love in return.

Bhupesh was a nationalist, in the best sense. I have seen in Delhi the sartorial transformation of many a political leader. Not so of Bhupesh Gupta. He would never discard his dhoti and Punjabi kurta even for a Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet.

I worked under him on the staff of the New Age. When I left the party paper to experiment with another type of journalism with a variegated readership, I had disagreed with the straitjacket approach of the party press: I remember how we would get agitated, but there was never any rancour, because there was no questioning of bonafides on either side. In subsequent years, he might disagree with my writings but he would never cast shadows on the integrity behind such disputed writings. I remember how many times during the Emergency he would tell me that he approved of my criticisms of the Establishment, not very easy under the prevailing censorship. On one such occasion, I asked him why he would not write in the way I did if he felt good at my writing. Bhupesh’s reply was significant: “I can’t because I am bound by the party policy but you go on writing and maybe that would help to change the party policy if you turn out to be right at the end.”

I can’t help ending on a personal note. During his absence abroad there appeared in New Age a scurrilous piece against me personally, distorting some of my recent writings. I did not care to answer this piece of dishonesty because I have come across quite a lot of mudslinging in politics. What distressed me was that this should appear in a paper which I had at one time served and of which Bhupesh was the editor. Some time later came a message from Bhupesh in his sickbed in Moscow conveying to me his distress at this piece and telling me that it would not have been published if he were there. This made me feel good that one need not lose one’s faith in comradeship even if one were saddened by the opening up of lower depths in Left politics.

Many of us shall miss Bhupesh more than we noted his presence.

(Mainstream, August 22, 1981)