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Mainstream, VOL LV No 44 New Delhi October 21, 2017

Renu Chakravartty: A Profile / Two Letters

Monday 23 October 2017

Renu Chakravartty was born on October 21, 1917 at Calcutta to Sadhan Chandra Roy and Brahma Kumari Roy. Her parents were well-known Brahmos, her grandparents—Prakash Chandra Roy and Aghorekamini Devi—having been pioneers of the Brahmo Samaj movement in Patna (Bihar). Sadhan Chandra was an engineer and the elder brother of Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, the renowned medical practitioner who became the second Chief Minister of West Bengal (in February 1948) after independence.

She passed out of school with distinction from Loreto House and joined Victoria College in Calcutta. Thereafter she travelled to England for higher studies at Newnham College, Cambridge. She was a tripos in English Literature at Cambridge University.

That was the decade of the 1930s. On account of her family background, espcially due to Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy’s influence, she was inspired by nationalist ideas. When Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu used to come to Calcutta, they frequently stayed at Dr Bidhan Chandra’s house at 36 Wellington Street where she was born. Thus, she was well-acquainted with the atmosphere of those days. But on going to England she was, like other Indian students, attracted towards Marxism and communism. Her contemporaries at that time were P.N. Haksar, Mohan Kumaramangalam, Bhupesh Gupta, Nikhil Chakravartty, Jyoti Basu, Indrajit Gupta among others. Indrajit Gupta was one of her cousins and he has in his memoirs written that it was Renu Chakravartty (she was then Renu Roy) who was instrumental in his joining the Communist Party. All of them were influenced by the emergence of the Soviet Union while Hitlerite Fascism was rising to destroy all the progressive forces in the world. These global events dominated their thinking and guided their activities in the days ahead. In fact, while she was abroad as a student, Renu Chakravartty, being active in the anti-fascist student movement, became the founder General Secretary of the Federation of Indian Students Associations in Europe.

On her return to India she joined the Calcutta University where she taught English Literature in the 1940s. At the same time, because of her association with the Communist Party—whose member she was from 1938 till the very end of her life—and a number of socio-political acti-vities she could not devote herself exclusively to teaching for long.

On January 3, 1942 she married Nikhil Chakravartty. They were acquainted with each other while they were in England and that acquaintance deepened due to their acceptance of the same communist ideology, path and programme of action. Their only son, Sumit, was born in 1945.

In the forties, she along with others (most notably Manikuntala Sen) played a prominent part in founding the Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti (Women’s Self-Defence League) which was set up during the 1943 famine projecting the issue of relief and rehabilitation in the backdrop of the world war which had affected eastern India. [She was also a member of the Executive Committee of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC).] Following the establishment of the Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti in the midst of war and famine, the Samiti organised in 1943 a 5000-strong procession of women in distress marching along the streets of Calcutta upto the Assembly building demanding famine relief. That was an unprecedented spectacle in those days. She played a noteworthy role in organising civil defence and first aid centres and setting up ‘relief kitchens’ as well. Subse-quently when communal violence raised its head she was also active in mobilising women for communal harmony at the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s fast at Beleghata.

After the country’s independence in August 1947 the Communist Party was banned in difficult conditions and Renu Chakravartty along with others, including N.C., had to go underground leaving her two-and-a-half year old son under the guardianship of her mother. After the party was legalised in 1951 she contested the first general elections from West Bengal in 1952 and got elected to the Lok Sabha from the rural Basirhat constituency in the 24-Parganas district. She was then the only woman Communist MP from West Bengal. She was re-elected to the Lok Sabha from the same constituency in 1957 and from the Barrackpore industrial belt in 1962 with the largest majority of votes among all other Lok Sabha contestants. She raised in Parliament various problems of the downtrodden, and especially womenfolk, but never ignored the constituency work after the elections. She was among the front-ranking speakers in the Lok Sabha, a trait that does not bear repetition. Those who have observed parliamentary proceedings of those days have witnessed how much importance the then Prime Minister Nehru used to give to her views. She played a prominent role during the parlia-mentary discussions on the Hindu Code Bill. Her speech in the Lok Sabha after the Chinese aggression in October 1962 was also memorable.

In the fifties, she along with others set up the National Federation of Indian Women. She was its founder Secretary. She worked as its General Secretary for several years and subsequently was its Vice-President. She also made valuable contributions in different international women’s conferences where she represented India. Organi-sationally she was closely connnected with the Women’s International Democratic Federation.

When the second United Front Government was set up in West Bengal in 1969 Renu Chakravartty was for a brief period the Minister-in-charge of Cooperation and Social Welfare. She then took a lot of initiatives in the running of the Ministry.

She was elected to the National Council of the undivided Communist Party at the Amritsar Congress in 1958. She remained as the NC member even after the party split upto 1978. Thereafter she was a member of the CPI’s Central Control Commission for several years. Being closely connected with the village folk she had the opportunity of being linked to the peasant movement; at the same time, she played a significant role in the trade union movement as well. In the second half of the 1950s she alongwith others was in the leadership which steered the historic workers’ strike at Jamshedpur. She had to suffer imprisonment several times because of providing leadership to such movements.

In 1980 was published her English booklet, Communists in Indian Women’s Movement. It presents a comprehensive account of the role of Commu-nists in the women’s movement in India. Subse-quently it was translated and published in other languages, mainly Hindi and Bengali.

She used to exprss her views in clear language, unambiguously and without hesitation leaving no room for ambiguity or doubt. That is why at the time of the Sino-Indian war in 1962 she took a firm stand and unequivocally condemned the Chinese aggression. At the same time because of her capability to mix with everyone there was a strong tendency in her to work with all irres-pective of political differences. She could easily rise over the party by discarding a narrow outlook. And on national questions national interests received priority from her over everything else.

She never suffered from any vacillating mentality or collapsed under depression on account of political and other troubles, obstacles and stresses. She stood firm before widespread slanders and mudslinging. She blended her indomitable vitality, energy and vigour with a considerable sense of humour; simultaneously she left behind many instances of courage. That her organisational capabilitities helped the Left movement to gain substantially in the fifties and sixties of the last century is something which many mentioned after her death.

A congenital heart defect affected her health after 1970. As a result she was compelled to undergo open heart surgery at an advanced age at Vellore’s Christian Medical College hospital in 1973. Thereafter she survived for as many as 21 years. Even in this period she did not spend her time within the confines of her residence. In fact, she never accepted the need to take rest. Thus there was a recurrence of the same heart defect. On January 26, 1994 she suffered a cerebral stroke and was bedridden since then. Eventually her power of resistance having become weak several diseases could extend their area of operation within her body. She breathed her last late at night on April 16, 1994 in Kolkata.

None could accuse her of being inactive. Before she became seriously ill and totally bedridden she had rushed to Berhampore in West Bengal to parti-cipate in a women’s conference disregarding everyone’s request and plea. Before that she was seen in the forefront of the anti-communal women’s procession at Ayodhya. A friend of hers conveyed his sympathies on her death in the following words: “She has led a full and combative life.” That she was able to lead such a life despite her congenital heart defect is indeed most noteworthy. 

Two Letters

The following two letters were received by Renu Chakravartty’s son after her demise.

.....I was very sad to hear of your mother’s death.

Renu was a good friend of mine and we both were fond of each other. We had a great time in the Third Lok Sabha. Though the Communist Movement had broken up and the Marxists had formed their own Party, the original CPI contained in its fold many able parliamen-tarians. Professor Hiren Mukerjee had great oratorical talents, Homi Daji was very hardwor-king and Indrajit Gupta had the rare gift of logical presentation. But your mother had a certain quality of her own, a fire which these people lacked. And it was this fire that drew us together. I jocularly used to call Sardar Hukum Singh’s favourites as the Speaker’s party. We were rebels. Renu, a kindred soul, “left” the Speaker’s party and joined our ranks.

Renu’s defeat in 1967 pained me very much. She suffered the most as a result of the split. Her parliamentary abilities were denied an outlet. I felt the loss acutely. Thereafter she kept indifferent health and we could but meet intermittently.

I share the sorrow in which Nikhil and you have been plunged.

April 26, 1994 B-11, Pandara Road,

New Delhi - 110 003       Madhu Limaye

How can I recall your mother at the moment, except as someone who took me also under her motherly wing when I most needed it? There were so many politicians in those early years from all shades of political colours, whom one could admire and emulate with affection. Renu to me was Indian first, a remarkably clear thinking lady of integrity with enough humour and warmth to stay a friend for life. No matter how big the gaps in personal contacts became, one knew that as soon as we would meet again there would be no gap at all.

We shall all miss her and Mehroo and I send our deepest sympathies to all your family. We received your ‘shradh’ invitation only on our return from abroad on 24th April.

May 5, 1994

M.N. Dastur & Company Ltd     M.N. Dastur

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