Jyoti Basu (8 July 1914 - 17 January 2010)
Jyotirindra Basu was the son of Nishikanta Basu, a doctor from the village of Barudi in Narayanganj District, East Bengal (now, Bangladesh) and Hemalata Basu, a housewife. They lived at 43/1 Harrison Road (now Mahatma Gandhi Road), Kolkata.
In 1920 he attended Loreto School at Dharmatala, Calcutta (now Kolkata), where his father shortened his name to Jyoti Basu.
In 1925, he moved to St. Xavier's School, after which in 1935 he completed his undergraduate education and received the honours in English from the Hindu College (renamed the Presidency College.
Becoming qualified as a barrister, he was involved in trade union activities in 1940 when CPI delegated him to work amongst the railway labourers. When the B.N. Railway Workers Union and the B.D. Rail Road Workers Union merged, Basu became the general secretary of the union.
From 1977 to 2000, Basu served as the Chief Minister of West Bengal, making him India's longest-serving Chief Minister as of 2010 of any Indian state. He was a member of the CPI(M) Politburo from the time of the party's founding in 1964 until 2008. From 2008 until his death in 2010 he remained a permanent invitee to the central committee of the party. On his death, he was the last of the founding Politburo members of Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M]
According to the Deccan Herald, Basu's body would be used for medical study and research by students and research fellows.
- "As a communist, I am pledged to serve humanity till my last breath. I am happy now I will continue to serve even after my death," Basu had written while pledging to donate his body at a function organised in 2003 by 'Ganadarpan', an NGO.
He also had pledged his corneas for the Muktakeshi eye foundation.
Basu was given a state funeral on 18 January 2010.
The Economist (21 January 2010) described Basu as "a communist, and a charming one":
- As chief minister of West Bengal, he realised that economic liberalisation and the rise of China were making old orthodoxies redundant. “We want capital,” he said once. “Socialism is not possible now.” Such remarks astonished his colleagues in the party. Nor did they relish his harping on what he called their “historic blunder”: the moment in 1996 when, at the head of a “third front” alliance of left-wing, regional and caste-based parties, he almost became India’s prime minister, only to be stymied by his own politburo’s ideological squeamishness.
- That might have allowed Mr Basu and the left a vital role in national politics. He still had much to do. He wanted to see the people’s political consciousness awakened, and India’s colossal inequalities of wealth and caste fading inexorably away. But in fact he had left West Bengal an economic backwater, largely shunned by foreign investors and a byword for obstreperous unionism. Marxist-Leninist revolution remained his dream; but, as he knew better than anyone, capitalism and private enterprise remained a surer bet.
Derek Brown, in The Guardian cited Basu's towering popularity,
- the result of seven decades of public and political service, most of it in Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it was known for most of his long life). He could have gone to the very top, as India's first communist prime minister in the mid-1990s, but his chance evaporated when his Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) decided to boycott the United Front coalition, which went on to rule under HD Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal. Basu thought the boycott a calamitous mistake, but true to style he remained steadfastly loyal to his party.
- . . .Over the following 23 years, Basu achieved much, and failed quite often too. He brought reform to a largely feudal landscape, and his redistribution of land-wealth made him electorally invincible. Even better, he brought stability to a previously chaotic state. But rural reform was paralleled by urban stagnation. Kolkata remains the most lovable of Indian cities, but communist rule has denied it the new prosperity visible in other centres such as Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay). Nowhere is the stultifying effect of the regime more evident than in the Writers' Building, a relic not just of the Raj but of the East India Company, where legions of clerks, peons and other penpushers juggle endlessly with crumbling heaps of forms, dockets, chits and files, to no apparent purpose.
- Basu remained an idol to the working class and rural peasantry, but in the end became a symbol of the statism which is so despised by today's MBA-brandishing classes. Had he become prime minister in 1996, he might well have restored prestige to that much-damaged office, through his honesty and other old-fashioned virtues. On the other hand, his instinct for hands-on control might have brought India's modern boom to a shuddering halt.
Subir Bhaumik, writing for BBC News, "came within a whisker of becoming India's first ever Communist Prime Minister."
- Some commentators believed that if he had become prime minister it might well have prevented the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party from coming to power. Often described as a Fabian Socialist rather than an orthodox Communist, Jyoti Basu worked by consensus, successfully managing coalitions, while showing a healthy respect for the viewpoints of others.
"He made Communism look respectable," according to Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhuri, a Calcutta-based political analyst.
Taslima Nasrin is one of many who wrote of his inspiration.
- Jyoti Basu's Support Brought Tears to my Eyes
- When the West Bengal government banned my book - although the decision was undemocratic and against freedom of expression - I assumed that Basu would support his party’s decision. But he surprised me by saying that he was against, not for, the banning of my book. In fact, he was the only one in the party who condemned this ban. He thought the government's decision had clearly been incorrect. By going against the party decision and supporting the freedom of expression, he not only proved himself to be great but also by his decision he encouraged those who were fighting for freedom of expression.
- Other communist leaders went with the party decision even though it was ideologically wrong. What could be more pathetic if, to become a member of a party, one had to surrender one’s own conscience? Although the communists are atheists, it is because I criticized a religion that they condemned me and gave the victory to the religious fundamentalists by banning my book in an attempt to silence my voice. This victory encouraged the fanatics so much that they did not hesitate to issue fatwas against me and repeatedly set a price on my head. This action of the government motivated them to take recourse to violence on the streets of the city.
- In 2007, after the fanatics attacked me in Hyderabad, I was forced to live under house arrest at my Kolkata residence. I was not allowed to step out of my home. Senior police officers were sent to tell me that I should leave the country. Living under house arrest, I could not meet my friends or go to the market. Even going to a doctor was not possible. At that time, I decided to meet Jyoti Basu. My decision created a sensation among my security personnel. At that time, no communist leaders were eager to meet me. They kept away, because supporting me meant losing Muslim votes. However, for my visit to Indira Bhavan, my confinement at home was relaxed for two hours.
- Jyoti Babu and I talked for more than an hour. He did not like the decision of the West Bengal government to put me, for no fault of mine, under house arrest. Had it been possible for him, I felt, he would have helped to make my life comfortable.
- Our first meeting took place ten years back. I was amazed when he agreed to meet me. Basu was a stalwart, and I knew nothing about politics. So I wondered what we would talk about. I was tense. Basu, however, had no problem in meeting me, knowing full well that I was just an exiled, apolitical writer. Both Basu and his wife met me at their home. He spoke to me as if we had known each other for decades and I was a close relative. I felt that only a great man could speak with such ease and élan even to a stranger. Our conversation centered around the early years of his life. I was amazed to hear from him about the various events of his life, his joys, his sorrows. When the time came to say goodbye, I felt and hoped that we would meet again.
- Afterwards, whenever I wanted to meet him, he always agreed in spite of being ill and busy. Even after I was thrown out of the state, whenever I rang him he always spoke to me over the telephone. I do not know why he liked me. Liking me was against his party line. He knew that supporting me would not give him any political mileage, but still he went against the tide. He went beyond myopic ideas and definitely deserves always to be remembered for his greatness as a leader.
- So I became the Bengali writer who was thrown out of East Bengal, or Bangladesh, and for whom West Bengal became her last refuge. The government of West Bengal’s decision to get rid of me was a fatwa that drove the last nail in my coffin and has left me forever traumatized. The fatwa that was issued by the West Bengal government has been a much more dangerous one than all the fatwas of the fundamentalists.
- The government chose willingly to eject a writer who was fighting for equality and justice. Wisely, Jyoti Basu did not accept the decision to banish a Bengali writer from Bengal. Basu, I feel, was able to go against the tide because he was not petty, narrow-minded, or selfish like so many other politicians. He stood tall as a visionary and was humane. When the communist leaders decided not to support my return to Kolkata, Basu had the courage to express my right and condemn their wrong. He was the only politician to welcome me back to Kolkata. His support brought tears to my eyes in the lonely, safe-house in Delhi where I was forced to live an inhumane existence for months.
- When I heard that Jyoti Basu was ill, I felt so lonely. He had lived a long life, yes, but I wanted him to live longer. When he was ill, I was eager to meet him, but I was not granted permission by the government of India. Analogously, when my father was ill, I was not granted permission by the Bangladesh government to visit him. When Basu and my father were on their deathbeds, I was not allowed a visit. The politics of Bangladesh did not allow me to meet my father and bow my head to his greatness. The politics of West Bengal prevented me from being beside Basu to show my gratefulness towards him.
- Such pathos, that people die but ugly politics never does!