RE-DISCOVERING A RARE HERITAGE

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Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s own diaries record his deep anguish at the spectre of death and decay. But then scholars, bent on peddling a certain political line, are never serious and assiduous about studying primary sources, they prefer handling and peddling propaganda

One of Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s diary entries record his deep anguish and frustration at the spectre of death and decay, “…The sight of starving people moving about the streets of Calcutta and begging for a little food was something unimaginable. They started taking whatever they could get from any source available, including street corners and dustbins. Reports of death due to starvation was reaching us. It was tragic that a strict operation of DI Rules prevented the truth from being known to the people at large and particularly to Provinces outside Bengal. …Men wanted food and not money, and foodgrains were hardly available. If foodgrains came, there were no means of communication to carry them to the distressed areas. Free supply of gruel and cheap supply of raw food grains constituted our main relief work…While millions died for want of food, an equal number followed to the grave on account of illness and malnutrition. Then came want of cloth, and people died in thousands during winter for want of shelter and protection. The whole atmosphere was nauseating. A Government that claimed itself to be civilised was carrying on its administration smoothly, and was even running a war, and allowed millions of its subjects to wither away for want of food, medicine and raiment. If it had been in other countries, such a Government would have been blown to pieces in no time. There would have been food riots and rebellion in the land. But our men being what they were and our country being what it was, everything was attributed to fate and people quietly died without raising even a murmur…My whole energy and attention were employed for organising relief, irrespective of party’s communal considerations, and I often wished that instead of making a hopeless attempt to save lives against tremendous odds and difficulties, we should have organised resistance so that the machinery of the Government might have been uprooted. My articles were translated and published in a book form (Panchasher Manantar, Bengal Publishers) and will give some idea of the acute nature of the problem that confronted us in the dark days of 1943.”

Interestingly, in his latest reflections, A Life in Diplomacy, former foreign secretary and doyen of Indian diplomats MK Rasgotra mentions the Hindu Mahasabha Session at Amritsar in December 1943. Rasgotra who, as a young activist, shared the dais with Mookerjee and was asked to speak by him, recalls how in his own speech, Mookerjee attacked the colonial Government for causing the famine, “the ground was filled to capacity with people, and Mookerjee, in his presidential address, fired up the audience with strong condemnation of the firangi sircar for its crime in creating artificial famine conditions to kill millions of Bengalis.” At least one gets an honest insight into Mookerjee’s approach to famine through these reminiscences of a most respected former diplomat.

Mookerjee’s moth-eaten diaries are preserved at the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) and contain candid entries, thoughtful reflections, political points and deeply philosophical and spiritual expressions. When communist marauders attacked his ancestral house in south Kolkata in early 1970s, a section of his family members decided to send these and a large cache of his papers for safe-keeping at NMML.

In fact, Panchasher Manantar was perhaps the first authoritative account of the famine and yet it is hardly referred to and if referred to at all, no credit is ever given to Mookerjee. A study will reveal in detail Mookerjee’s own reading, approach and study of the Bengal famine and has the capacity thus to bust many myths. But then scholars bent on peddling a certain political line are never serious and assiduous about studying primary sources, they prefer handling and peddling propaganda, such a thing comes easily to them. It suited a section among the activist historians to suppress this study of the Bengal famine altogether, again simply because works such as these negated against their stereotype of Mookerjee.

Some among this third category of observes of the exhibition were intrigued by the letter Mookerjee’s mother had written to Jawaharlal Nehru after his death demanding an enquiry they feel it is a hoax. The letter’s tone, dignity and forcefulness are deeply moving. Mookerjee’s younger brother, the celebrated travelogue writer Uma Prasad Mookerjee’s book, Syama Prasader Diary O Mrityu Prasanga (Syama Prasad’s diary and the Issue of his death), a Bengali classic, was for long a household reading in Bengal, at least in nationalist households not given to the false romanticisation of communism.

Uma Prasad not only dealt at length on the peculiar circumstances of Mookerjee’s death and the disappearance of his dairy but also appended his mothers’ letter written to Nehru asking for an enquiry into Mookerjee’s death.

For those aware of Bengali literature, this is not fiction, but published history. For the Jawaharlal Nehru University historian, Nehru’s refusal to conduct an enquiry into Mookerjee’s death is perhaps a logical act, but for the truly democratic minded it is astounding and shocking to think of how a leader of his stature, a former Union Minister, member of the Constituent Assembly, the unofficial Leader of Opposition was allowed to die and the Prime Minister of the day — believed by some to be an epitome of rectitude, of democratic conduct in public life — refused to even constitute, if not anything else, at least a one man enquiry committee into the circumstances that led to his death.

For the communists, Mookerjee’s death came at an opportune time. It removed from their path the one man who could have stemmed the tide of their growth in Bengal and all over the country and could have kept them stunted to a political rump.

Those opposing Mookerjee even today, a good 63 years after his death, are the ones who romanticise terrorism, condone separatism, advocate violent extremism and work to kill the Indian dream and sap our national energies. The echoes of Mookerjee’s politics, drifting through across the decades continues to unsettle them, it confuses and weakens them, after all how can they confront one whose possessed such an unshakable will.

As Mookerjee once told his young audience when freedom was approaching, “We live in an age when the need of Parakrama, ceaseless exertion, courage and valour, in all spheres of activity is more imperative than ever…Disruptive forces are at work within the country itself. A nation can only save itself by its own energy. But energy and strength hardly come to a people that do not enjoy the blessings of unity and freedom.”

Those who wish to tear apart this unity and compromise this freedom, those whose politics aid and perpetrate the disintegration of India, those who fear this call to ‘Parakrama’ are the ones who continue to cower before Mookerjee’s legacy or continue to heap calumny on it. That legacy, however, still stands unsullied — an inspiring and reassuring sentinel over India’s manifest destiny.

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