(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
August 24 , 2008
Remembering Comrade Surjeet
COMRADE Harkishen Singh Surjeet will be remembered as one of those who sacrificed their whole life to ensure that the slogans of the anti-imperialist martyr Bhagat Singh, “Long Live Revolution”, “Long Live Socialism” and the ideology that went into coining them would become a part of our mainstream political thinking. This was not an easy task. It took over seventy five years for the Indian parliament to decide to install his statue in parliament. Other ideas of his like a society free not only of exploitation, but also of communal, casteist and obscurantist ideas will take even longer.
The life of Comrade Surjeet reflects the courage, consistency and determination it takes to carry this message forward. He began early. At the age of 15 he took down the British flag and raised that of the future independent India on the district commissioner’s office at Hoshiarpur to mark the first anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s judicial murder by a colonial Kangaroo Court.
The army was posted at colonial district centres to prevent protests with orders to shoot. In fact, when Surjeet was hoisting the flag, two shots were fired; but they missed him. Hearing the shots, the Commissioner, a Mr Wagle, came out, saw the young teenager and ordered the soldiers to stop. Indeed, if the official had been British, there was every reason to expect that the young patriot would have been shot.
But even an Indian official had to implement the orders of the colonial administration. He arrested him and sentenced him, but the young man told him his name was London Tor Singh (Break London Singh) and the judge ordered he be arrested for a year and a half. Surjeet mockingly answered it was too short a sentence, so he was sentenced to four years, the maximum permissible for his offence. This only steeled the young patriot further. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and was again in jail from 1940 to 1944. In all he spent eight years in jail under the British and two years more under the government of India, as well as eight years underground.
It is amazing how a person committed to freeing India from British rule, keeping it united, and resisting separatist, communal and imperialist forces, should have had to fight such an uphill battle against things one would have imagined would have died a natural death with India becoming independent. But this did not happen. The people still face the bullets and bombs of terrorists, arson; murder and loot in riots and suffer exploitation and oppression with no respect for the law at the hands of the rich and privileged. The rural areas are still under control of the monopolists of land and their criminal mafias. They can only be countered by organising the peasantry to resist exploitation. This was the task Comrade Surjeet addressed himself to when he joined the Kisan Sabha and became the general secretary of its Punjab state unit in 1938. Later he was the general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha from 1974 and its president from 1989.
However, the most important thing was that even as a peasant leader coming from the Jat peasantry of Punjab, he was aware of being a communist and a protagonist of the working class first and foremost. Indeed, he championed the formation of an independent agricultural labour organisation in 1953 in the CPI and later in the CPI(M) in 1980, when AIAWU was formed. His theoretical position envisaged a future where the peasantry with State support would develop as producers for the market. This would naturally lead to differentiation within the peasantry and the increasing exploitation of the vast mass of agricultural labourers. So they would have to be organised to defend their interests on the ground to ensure that the peasants would not be tempted to exploit those less fortunate than themselves to temporarily escape the hardships of the deepening agrarian crisis and drift away from the militant anti-imperialist peasant movement and make common cause with the rural landlords and their mafias. His views were shared by fellow-revolutionaries like P Sundarayya, Desarath Deb, L B Gangadhar Rao, V S Achuthanandan and P K Kunjachan, who were committed to building up a powerful movement to unleash an agrarian revolution on the basis of a worker-peasant alliance with agricultural labour as it most enduring link.
He understood it was not an easy task to protect the poorest and most exploited where “the devil take the hindmost” was the ruling ideology. They had to be organised independently. Despite his many concerns, he was an active architect of the All India Agricultural Workers Union. It was with his support and guidance that a successful all India strike of agricultural workers was organised. He always stressed that the basic demands of agricultural labour like wages, house-sites and social justice were not negotiable in the name of peasant unity. Indeed, even from the angle of basic civil rights the agricultural labour had a raw deal. There were no laws to protect them and regulate their working conditions. So he took up the issue of a comprehensive central legislation for agricultural labour for which he prepared a draft in 1980. This legislation has still not been passed by parliament as rural vested interests are dead set against it. This is one of his most cherished projects that we have to be fight for and see that it is completed.
There were three things about him that one cannot forget. The first was his clarity. As in the case of his treatment of agricultural labourers’ demands, he was never in doubt as to the best course of action. The second was his consistency. Once he had worked out a course of action he carried it through to the end. The Central Committee was well aware of the need for such leadership and that is why, despite his failing health, they insisted he lead the Party in the era of coalitions to isolate the BJP and contain the Congress till the Delhi Party Congress of 2005 after he had helped form the UPA. His third quality was his candour. He never reacted to criticism vindictively. I remember meeting him first at Comrade Biplab Das Gupta’s London flat for dinner, when I was a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, some 37 years ago and questioned him about the murders of Naxalites in Bengal. The honesty and straight-forwardness with which he explained how they objectively played the role of allowing the reactionary forces led by the Congress to destabilise the United Front governments and use them as an excuse for repression while they themselves targeted some of our best cadres to eliminate them. The clarity of his approach was convincing so I came back to India and joined the SFI in JNU, and later, the Party.
It is a matter of pride for me that some 30 years later (when I was mobilising for the seventh DYFI conference at Amritsar in November 2003) he told comrades, “I brought him to the Party”. But what I will never forget him for was the encouragement he gave comrades to do bold deeds. This happened when I volunteered to go to Gopeshwar for Bahuguna’s rigged elections or to guide DYFI activity in Punjab during the period of terror in that state. He knew the risks his cadre were taking and was proud of them for taking them. In fact, he was more than liberal with the young and promoted them even if they opposed his better judgement. He was convinced people would learn from their mistakes, and even if they did not, he continued to encourage them to do their best in the given circumstances. What is more, he never shied away from danger himself. His presence at Indira Gandhi’s funeral in the middle of an anti-Sikh pogrom and in the years when terrorism was rife in Punjab are an example of this.
His capacity to bring people round to his view was evident at his funeral and the condolence meetings that followed. There was virtually no leading figure of Indian politics, from the prime minister down, who did not voice their debt to his sincere advice at crucial moments in history. These were all reminders of how the participation of the CPI (M) in coalition politics at the centre gave it an influence far beyond its organisational strength. It leaves us with the task of facing up to the challenge of building a mass revolutionary party to fill the space afforded us by a broad political platform the Jalandhar Party Congress envisaged. The years of his general secretaryship from 1992 to 2005 were characterised by his efforts to both isolate the BJP and evolve a third alternative. Indeed, he has left an enormous responsibility on those he tutored to take over the CPI(M) and its mass organisations, a responsibility that must be addressed urgently and seriously so that the gains of the past are consolidated and carried forward.