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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 42, October 3, 2009

Remembering Somnath Lahiri on His Birth Centenary

Monday 5 October 2009, by SC


Last month on September 1, the birth centenary of legendary Communist leader Somnath Lahiri passed almost unnoticed. The CPI, to which he belonged, did not deem it necessary to even hold a public meeting to pay homage to his abiding memory; yet he was one of the stalwarts of the party and the communist movement and ranked among those who had laid the foundations of both.

Along with Dr Ronen Sen and Abdul Halim he built the party’s Calcutta Committee which had once won the recognotion of the Communist International. An all-India Communist Party was set up in 1933 by uniting several communist groups like the Calcutta Committee in whose acquisition of strength and prestige Lahiri had played a seminal role. As a matter of fact it was Lahiri who was the party’s all-India General Secretary for a brief period in 1938 (in recognition of his endeavours on that score) but this is not in the least publicised today—this was, of course, much before the party’s First Congress in Mumbai in 1941 (distinct from the first Communist Conference in Kanpur in 1925 that saw the birth of the CPI) wherein P.C. Joshi was elected its first General Secretary. What is more, Somnath Lahiri was the sole Communist member in the Constituent Assembly in 1946 and substantially contributed to the debates there as also the drafting of the country’s Constitution by incorporating several crucial amendments in defence of the toiling people.

Lahiri, who came from a middle-class background, threw his heart and soul into the development of the trade union movement in undivided Bengal alongside such celebrated figures as Bankim Mukherjee; he was for long years active in the leadership of the Calcutta Tramway Workers’ Union (functioning under the banner of the AITUC) which was subsequently led by such noted trade unionists as Indrajit Gupta. He was for 20 years a member of the West Bengal State Legislative Assembly (1957-77) and a Cabinet Minister in the First and Second UF governments in the State in 1967 and 1969-70 respectively, being in charge of Information and Culture, Local Self-government and PWD.

He was an exceptionally brilliant speaker and writer, and because of these qualities he was head and shoulders above most of the Left leaders in the State. At the same time he was an accomplished journalist and ably edited the party’s Bengali mouthpiece Swadhinate for many years. He wrote an extraordinarily powerful editorial “Shok noy, krodh” (Not Sorrow, but Anger) after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948.

Lahiri led an exceptionally simple, unassuming life. He had an acerbic tongue and an inimitable sense of humour. He had varied interests beyond politics—he liked to read novels, watch films and theatres, and listen to music and songs. Wielding a facile pen he wrote short stories and novels as well. In short, he was a multifaceted talented personality something rare among today’s Communist leaders.

At one time he was quite close to N.C. Once after a hard day’s reporting work when the journalists had reached the Swadhinata office during the last phase of freedom struggle, Lahiri asked them what was the most striking feature of whatever they had seen in the course of the day. While others narrated from their own experience, N.C. disclosed that for first time he saw people running towards the police firing on them, totally unconcerned about their own safety. Lahiri immediately exclaimed: “This, this is what is happening. This is the most significant event today. People have lost their sense of fear. This is symptomatic of mass uprising and this needs to be vividly reported.”

As a mark of our sincere tribute to his memory we reproduce the lead article that he wrote for weekly Kalantar (the CPI’s organ since 1963) on its Republic Day issue in January 1963. It brings out the essence of the unity between the nationalists and Communists in the aftermath of the Chinese aggression on India in October 1962. S.C.

From Somnath Lahiri’s Pen


Long years ago we had rushed out of our camps around midnight. The silence of both banks of the river Ravi was shattered by the noise of our jubilation, the ferocity of the cold in the river bank had failed to dampen us.

That is because our minds were inflamed. We had by then realised through many years of experience, arguments, debates and struggle that it is imperialism which is our principal enemy. The heat generated by that realisation animated our minds, standing on the banks of the Ravi we had declared in a firm voice that complete independence from the domination of imperia-lism is the inviolable right of every Indian.

We had resolved that we have the right to get whatever is necessary for living like human beings, we have the right to build our lives in deference to the dictates of our mind, and we will achieve that right. Thereafter the nation has advanced along the difficult path of grief and danger, blood and toil, striving to give substance to that resolve.

The day India’s independent republic was established breaking the bondage of imperialist rule, that day was laid the foundation of fulfilling that resolve. That is why every year we pledge to protect this republic of ours, further extend democracy, boldly struggle for giving shape to a socialist society.


The forces that pull us back have, of course, not exhausted their potential. Even after being forced to withdraw its hand imperialism once again wants to spread out its hand of interference, vested interests want to constrict democracy, profit-mongers want to deprive the people of the ingredients of life, and the vacillations and contradictions of the rich classes place limitations on anti-imperialist advance.

Hence within the republican structure continue both union and struggle. But that is our own business. That is why we want peace with the outside world—so that we can fight agianst the extension of the imperialist hand of interference in our own way, build our lives in our own way, resist the attacks of vested interests in our own way and duly participate in defence of peace the world over. Despite all limitations our country’s economic progress and peaceful foreign policy were helping us, despite the reactionary forces aided by imperialism raising their head our countrymen were getting prepared to combat them. And the immense progress of the socialist forces worldwide was providing strength to our arms.

However, ignorant extremism of socialist dog-matic blindness came to assist the forces of dark-ness. The sacred commitment to Panchsheel, the revolutionary significance of peaceful coexistence, the progressive contribution of non-aligned independence—forgetting all these China attacked India; and the day it carried out the aggression, that very day jubilation broke out in the various camps of reaction. Within just one month that aggression shattered our peace: they dealt a heavy blow to the humanitarian and mental force on the basis of which we were waging struggle to translate our resolve into reality. What ultra-Right reaction inside the country could never succeed in doing that was achieved by ultra-Left extremism from outside—the latter even pushed many people of goodwill towards reaction. From all corners echoed the reactionary clamour—death to communism, reject non-alignment, join hands with imperia-lism, let constructive plan go to hell, abandon democracy.

But they have as yet failed to kill the national spirit of India. The call for our country’s defence was legitimate—so the world stood behind us, the international socialist community not blinded by dogmatic aggressiveness came to our assistance, and the anti-imperialist vitality of that resolve we had taken and that struggle we had decided to wage on the banks of the Ravi sustained us. So even after attacking us they have been compelled to retreat, and the advance of internal reaction too has been impeded. All people of goodwill have again begun to say: the path to honourable peace is unfolding before us, let us again rally behind the Prime Minister.

We want to build our country in our own way, we want to fight for it in our own way, we don’t want external interference. If we are attacked we will wage death-defying struggle, but that will be the struggle to establish peace. Let that honourable peace be our principal oath of resolve in this Republic Day.

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