Sankar Ray is a senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazines, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics in India and abroad
It was 20 or 21 February, 2001. A man wearing a milk-white kurta and dhoti was weeping almost like a child before the lifeless body of Indrajit Gupta, an ace parliamentarian, a world class trade unionist, a rare-breed orator and former general secretary of Communist Party of India. The man weeping was Somnath Chatterjee, then leader of the Lok Sabha group of Communist Party of India (Marxist) and member of the central committee of the party. When a young reporter approached him, the sobbing Chatterjee uttered a few words in a choked voice, reluctantly too. “I am not in a state of mind to say anything except that the world today will not be the same again with such a pathfinder with a rare intellect.” Wasn’t this Somnathbabu who pulled up the Supreme Court of India when he was the Speaker of Lok Sabha in 2005 pertaining to the apex court’s decision? As Speaker, he was very particular about preserving Parliamentary supremacy in the domain reserved to it by the Constitution, and loathed any sort of interference, even from the judiciary. When the Supreme Court ordered the advance floor test of Jharkhand Legislative Assembly (Anil Kumar Jha v Union of India AIR 2005 SC 425, criticising the lack of political considerations, he stated pointblank: “It was a wrong decision. With due respect for the judiciary, which I fully respect, I say the Supreme Court should not have given this decision. It was not the judiciary’s work. Whatever happened in Jharkhand assembly on the day decided by Supreme Court for vote of confidence was there for all to see. What would have the Court done after that? Could it have jailed the pro-tem speaker and the MLAs? Could it have sent police inside the assembly?” In the same vein the office of the Speaker shot back on 9 July 2008 when the honchos at the AKG Bhawan, headquarters of CPI(M) chucked him out: “The attention of Shri Somnath Chatterjee, the hon’ble Speaker of Lok Sabha, has been drawn to the various media reports which have been published or telecast about his continuance in office. The hon’ble Speaker does not represent any political party in the discharge of his duties and functions. It is well known that the present Speaker’s election to his high office was not only uncontested but was unanimous, as all political parties proposed his name. He was not elected as the nominee of any party. In the discharge of his duties and functions he does not owe allegiance to any political party.” The media was politely urged not to “drag the highest legislative office of the country into controversies by speculative reports and undeserved innuendos”. He made revealing details on the Stalinist-Beriaite stance of the then CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat in his memoirs ‘Keeping The Faith: Memoirs Of A Parliamentarian’. On 18 July Chatterjee wrote, “I got a telephone call from him (Karat) that I need not cast my vote on the confidence motion but that I must resign from the office of the Speaker. I told him clearly that I could not accept his suggestion.” On 23 July 2008 , after the two-day debate on the motion of confidence moved by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the CPI(M) brass comprising five local members of the politburo out of 17 issued a statement that the PB unanimously decided to expel Chatterjee. His stand was supported by the former CPI chief AB Bardhan, who was criticised by CPI insiders for appeasing AKG Bhavan mandarins. Chatterjee noted in his memoirs, Bardhan stated “the Left ally should not have included the name of Lok Sabha Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, in the list of party MPs withdrawing support to the UPA government. He is a veteran leader and Parliamentarian and he should decide on this matter on his own. Dragging Chatterjee into the resignation controversy was an attack on the dignity of the high post held by him. I agree the Speaker was elected on a CPM ticket. But he was elected Speaker to the Lok Sabha with the support of all parties.” The world again became a different one on 13 August 2018 when the mundane innings of arguably the most conscientious custodian of the temple of Indian parliamentary democracy, ended. Born in Tezpur , Assam, on 29 July, 1929 to Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, a lawyer, jurist, and member of the first Lok Sabha (1952-57), representing the rightwing All India Hindu Mahasabha, pro-Hindu ideological forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the younger Chatterjee was educated at the Presidency College, University of Calcutta, and University of Cambridge, followed by Bar-at-Law from Middle Temple. On his return to India, he joined the bar and earned repute in no time. Chatterjee was a late-joiner in politics, having been officially indoctrinated as an active communist as a member of CPI(M) in 1968, when he was thirty-nine. In 1971, he was elected to the LS from the Burdwan constituency as a CPI(M) candidate when the party increased its strength in the LS from West Bengal to 17 from five in 1967, braving the ‘Garibi Hatao’ that ensured a sweeping victory to Indira Gandhi and her split-away new party from the Congress from the clutches of ‘Syndicate’ headed by S Nijalingappa teaming up with K Kamaraj, SK Patil, Morarji Desai and Atulya Ghosh. Chatterjee’s father was defeated in 1957 (AIHM candidate) and 1962 (independent candidate) but won in 1963 in by-election from Burdwan with the CPI support. After 1957, he became disillusioned with the Mahasabha (of which he was elected all India president in 1947). From the same seat, he won in 1967 with communist support. After his death in 1971, CPI(M) nominated Somnath as a candidate. Somnath received ‘special treatment’ from the CPI(M) top leadership, thanks to its subtle embourgeoisment and subsequent imbibing of elitism. He was chosen as the LS group leader without being a PB and central committee member (later inducted into the CC at the party’s 16th Congress , Calcutta, 1998), but paid back with his performance both inside and outside the parliament. There he – although wasn’t on record – was opposed to totalitarianism that Marx never endorsed unlike Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao. Armchair revolutionaries dump Chatterjee as anti-Marxist for his faith in parliamentary democracy, being blissfully unaware of Marx’s words in The Charterists (9 October 1852).He equated universal suffrage with “political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population. Somnath Chatterjee will be remembered as a committed libertarian, despite some of his errors and pitfalls of a human being.