The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 25, 2000
Speaking generally

He was a man of the masses
By Chanchal Sarkar

SOME time back a CPI (M) politician died in West Bengal. His name was Benoy Krishna Choudhury and until two or three years ago, he was the senior most member of the West Bengal cabinet after Jyoti Basu. The amazing thing was that, on his death, extremely rich tributes came not only from his party colleagues but from all the other parties in the state and from many non-party people, often very ordinary men and women.

Benoy Choudhury, who was almost 90, was like the political workers we used to hear about when we were young, completely selfless in the fight to make India free. As with all political workers he, too, began in the Congress and later moved to the Communist Party which later, of course, split into two. While in the Congress in the early days he was a revolutionary who did not believe in non-violence. His constituency, if you like, was the poor both in industry and in agriculture. He lived among them and know their problems first hand. Even as late as the 1975 Emergency he was being hunted by the police and lived underground in Bengal villages for quite a while.

Living among the poor, he knew the plight of the landless and those who were sharecroppers forced to part with a big share of their crop to landlords who gave them no security of tenure and often turned them out of the land. When Benoy Choudhury became Minister of Land and Land Reforms when the Left Front came to power in 1977 after two short earlier spells be began ‘ Operation Barga’, Bargadar being the word used for sharecroppers who had no security of land. West Bengal’s reforms turned out to be the best land reform and distribution system in India. The so-called land reform schemes in the other states like U.P. and Bihar had just been a hoax, the landlords continued to rule their empire with an iron hand. Benoy Choudhury and the team he created saw to it that sharecroppers had tenure over their land and could not be evicted. Recently the West Bengal government is trying to put into effect a scheme under which sharecroppers can buy the land they till out of loans provided from public funds.

  Hundreds of thousands of poor landless labourers and bargadars in West Bengal will bless Benoy Babu for having given them land from which nobody could turn them out. He was a peasant leader to reminisce about. He could mix easily with labourers and agriculturists. At times when he was evading arrest such as during the Emergency, tribal families gave him willing shelter. He never forget them.

After retiring from the ministry, Benoy Babu lived in a small rented flat in the Salt Lake area, very simply as he had always done. A friend who went to meet him said he was trying to work out what would be the spouse’s pension for him from his deceased wife who had been a headmistress. Here was one of the most senior politicians of West Bengal trying to work out if he could make both ends meet with the little he had and the pension of his dead wife. It would be interesting to compare this with, say, the lifestyle of Madhavrao Scindia, Kamal Nath, Jayalalitha, Sonia Gandhi, Pramod Joshi and others.

Benoy Babu was tall and strong (he had been a revolutionary of the famous Bengal parties Anushilan and Jugantar) and walked with his head held high under all circumstances. On December 17, 1995 he, the second-most senior minister of the West Bengal Cabinet, said in a speech "This is a government of contractors, by contractors and for contractors". Jyoti Basu was very annoyed but their long association was not broken up though Benoy Babu retired not long after. Another of his statements was "Just as the moon is illumined by the rays of the sun so too we are illumined by the light of the people. We must remember that the people are our strength, they are the source."

A poor man he had nothing to bequeath so he gave his eyes to the eye bank and his body to Calcutta Medical College for research. No wonder so many tributes flowed from all manner of people. They were remembering the kind of leader who has become extinct in this country.

Mess called education

Most primary schools, I don’t mean the ones run at a heavy profit with very expensive fees, are a mess. In Delhi quite a number of them have no building but work in tents. There I am fairly sure the children have no toilets or safe drinking water. The teaching is poor and the children learn little. And yet, given the opportunity, they could do very well indeed.

In the middle of this torrid summer I visited a teaching system in the Midnapore district of West Bengal which I will long remember. Early in the morning primary school children from three villages assembled in an open field. They changed into uniforms and were given something to eat. This was very important because their mothers could not feed them. In fact some mothers gave them tablets made from the mahua flower (out of which country liquor is brewed) to prevent their children feeling hungry. As a result, they were found to be dozing in class.

Anyway, after their snack the children did yoga exercises under the supervision of a trained instructor. Then they split up class-wise and sat down to lessons from teachers. The teachers were themselves stipendiary holders from the institution running the classes. They are supported by the organisation right through to the graduation in their education, food, hostel, books and clothes and do their teaching as a pay-back for their scholarship grant. These early morning classes, then, are not school classes but a form of coaching. After the morning coaching, the children go to school. As a result of the coaching the pass record of the school children is now a hundred per cent. They are healthy, are checked regularly by doctors, and they must be a load off their parent’s minds, particularly the mothers who carry the main burden of feeding and clothing the children.

So just a little bit of cooperation from people — to help with the feeding and the uniforms, to provide for a shed so that the children don’t have to sit in the sun and the children would turn out to be students one would be proud of. Does this happen? Not always. There are doctors who give their services free but not much donations or voluntary help come in. People are not willing to put themselves out to help others.