Syama Prasad Mookerjee continues to permeate and percolate into the very essence and fibre of our national existence
Going beyond mere ritualism of remembering him on his death and birth anniversary the interest in the life and legacy of Syama Prasad Mookerjee is growing by the day and spreading across the country. In the two months that I spent travelling across West Bengal during the campaign for the 2019 general elections, I witnessed the interest and emotion that Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s name evoked in the Bengali psyche. Interestingly, this connect with Syama Prasad was not confined to a certain age group, it cut across generations, evoking tears, defiance, confidence and hope across generations.
I met octogenarians and nonagenarians who had met or heard Syama Prasad. His voice, they told me, continues to echo in their minds, his words they could still recall and the description and contour that they articulated brought to the surface the image of a compassionate leader, firm on his political positions, convinced and decisive about what he wished to do for his people, undeterred by extreme adversities and uncertainties, determined to protect India, and to protect his people. As one of his colleagues in the university and beyond, HC Mookerjee, observed in a moving memorial speech after Syama Prasad’s passing, “there was nothing reactionary about him”, indeed, it was this aspect of his that enabled him to create a broad coalition of opinion that ultimately saved Bengal. The reminiscences of Syama Prasad’s personality reminded me of the words of the other mighty shaper of the Bengali imagination, the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam who having been saved by Syama Prasad from an excruciatingly painful and helpless situation had written to him, “Your magnanimity, generosity and genuine affection for me, your courage, uprightness, and bravery have percolated into every pore of my body and mind.”
Among the youth – I met many of them across the state, many who, braving uncertainty and an atmosphere of fear, had gathered to participate in the many outreach initiatives that we have organised and conducted – I saw an intense commitment and interest in the legacy and contribution of Syama Prasad Mookerjee. It was an informed interest, the urge to spread his words, his vision, and to generate a discourse on his contributions to India and on why he had made a herculean effort to carve out a portion of Bengal by pushing for the creation of West Bengal.
Among youth, the debate was primarily on Syama Prasad’s vision for West Bengal, the interest was to connect that vision to the present of the state. Over the last few years, groups throughout India have begun to observe “West Bengal Day” on June 20, the day in history in 1947, when Bengali Hindu legislators of the Bengal Legislative Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of the creation of West Bengal, a homeland they had hoped that the Bengali Hindus, after partition, would live in security and peace pursuing their paths to prosperity. It was a day forgotten in history, until a few years ago when groups began tracing its significance and started observing the day as an occasion for reflecting on the reason and raison d’être of West Bengal and on the future of the state and the challenges and struggle that face it.
The vote for the creation of a separate state of West Bengal came about after Syama Prasad had made a gigantic effort both political and intellectual to mobilise the opinion of the Bengali intelligentsia to prevent the entire Bengal from being included in Jinnah’s ‘paradise.’ The Bengal Partition League which had been formed through his efforts saw the involvement of many leading Bengali minds and public figures who began to publicly oppose the move of gifting Jinnah the whole of Bengal. Among them was the veteran revolutionary and front-ranking intellectual of that age Upendranath Banerjee, Sri Aurobindo’s co-accused in the Alipore Bomb Trial and among the first batch of political prisoners to be transported for life to the Cellular Jail (Kala Pani) in Andamans. Upendranath’s last years were spent, apart from editing Dainik Basumati – a leading daily, fighting alongside Syama Prasad in trying to ensure that India did not lose the whole of Bengal to the divisive politics of the Muslim League.
Syama Prasad is being increasingly referred to as the creator of West Bengal, which he was, and in the state, he is coming back to the centre stage of the political discourse. Much as the communist, sections of Congress and its political offshoots have tried and continue to try to suppress or malign his legacy, Syama Prasad continues to give rise to waves of action. He stands as the conscience of Hindu Bengalis and of nationalists across the country. Some elements who have, through their negative politics and false intellectual prowess, tried to suppress his legacy have in fact failed. In his death, Syama Prasad became immortal, for as long as India’s integrity and unity are challenged from within or from elements outside, his legacy will continue to inspire. Syama Prasad’s multi-dimensional contribution to our national life is being increasingly referred to. Despite attempts in the past to marginalise his contribution, the awareness of it is growing.
Penning a tribute on his birth anniversary, his political disciple and heir, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, the one who carried the fledgeling Jana Sangh forward, wrote of Dr Mookerjee thus, “His sacrifice was for safeguarding the two principles whose strands are interwoven into his life and work. These two principles are nationalism and democracy.” The Kashmir movement, wrote Upadhyaya “was not only for the protection of the basis of our nationalism i.e., India’s unity but also for safeguarding the very soul of democracy, i.e. the fundamental rights of the citizens.”
Syama Prasad’s legacy has a phenomenal capacity for re-inventing itself across the country and especially in the state which he helped create – West Bengal. This is becoming more evident than ever before. While his death anniversary (June 23) is an occasion to reflect on the nature of democracy, on India’s unity and integrity and on the challenges that these face from quarters pledged to subvert and to break apart this unity, it also an occasion to reflect on how Syama Prasad’s indomitable spirit continues to permeate and percolate into the very essence and fibre of our national existence and march.
Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam had written to Syama Prasad, “I believe that one day we will make India fully independent. On that glorious day, Bengalis will remember most you and Subhas Bose – you will be the country’s true leaders.” His words were deeply prescient.
(Dr. Anirban Ganguly is Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)