Unceasing flow to pay homage, followed by crack of rifles: The last journey of Jyoti Basu


Manini Chatterjee


A moving account of the final  farewell to a great leader of India.



An army gun carriage, bedecked and replete with the trappings of power, takes Jyoti Basu’s body from Citizens’ Park to SSKM Hospital .


Calcutta, Jan. 19: There was no hysterical outpouring of raw grief, no unruly outburst of manufactured emotion, no orchestrated display of organizational might.


Today’s moving and fitting tribute to Jyoti Basu – Bengal’s most enduring icon and among the foremost national leaders of post-Independence India – came not from the three-volley rifle salute nor the galaxy of leaders and VVIPs who thronged the bedecked stage in the Assembly before a huge battery of television cameras.


It came, instead, from lakhs (1 lakh=100,000) and lakhs of ordinary people – men and women from the city and its suburbs, from distant villages and far-flung districts – who stood patiently in serpentine queues and lined every inch of the roads his last journey meandered through, having gathered in silent clusters along the entire route.


Most of them had come on their own, not shepherded by local party bosses as to a Maidan (a historic park in Kolkata) rally; some of them had never voted for the CPM in their lives, and many had ceased to vote Red in recent years. Yet they came, in an unceasing flow from early morning till journey’s end at 4.40 in the evening, to pay a homage that was spontaneous yet somber, heartfelt but restrained and entirely in keeping with the persona of the man they had come to say goodbye to.


An era had come to an end, they knew, and they had come to make their tryst with history.


For the CPM, Basu was the last of the nine-member politburo that formed the party back in 1964 and who, more than any other, became the best known communist in the annals of the movement in this country. The party, therefore, pulled out all the stops in giving him a befitting send-off – the entire extant politburo and several central committee members gathering at the party’s state headquarters at Alimuddin Street early this morning to offer Basu their Red salute.


For the Left Front government and alliance, Basu was their longest-serving chief minister who gave the state an enviable stability for decades (before it turned into the now vilified stagnation) and made Bengal the byword for land reforms and decentralization of power. So the cortege made a brief but obligatory stop outside Writers’ Buildings where chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee placed a wreath on Basu’s body.


But long before he assumed the office of chief minister, Basu had been a central figure in the politics of Bengal – among the handful of political activists who combined mass work, trade unionism and legislative responsibilities with equal ease, entering the Assembly as far back as 1946.


Much more than being India’s longest-serving chief minister, Basu was the only Indian leader who spanned seven decades of active politics – starting before Jawaharlal Nehru became Prime Minister and living to see his great-grandson enter the arena. That long and rich innings ensured that Basu would never be just a communist leader confined to just one state of the country but a towering personality with an appeal that transcended both party lines and provincial boundaries. His party may have blundered in not letting him be Prime Minister in 1996.


But today the CPM brass could not stop basking in Basu’s reflected national glory as leaders from across the political spectrum – Sonia Gandhi and L.K. Advani, Deve Gowda and Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad and Chandrababu Naidu and others big and small – flew down to Calcutta to personally pay their respects.


The presence of Sheikh Hasina from Bangladesh , and many Bangladesh Opposition leaders too confirmed that the Basu magic seeped beyond borders.


Yet, all the pomp and show, the rituals and honors bestowed on a frail old man who epitomized the cliché of being a legend in his lifetime faded before the humbling spectacle offered by the crowds – from jeans-clad youngsters to rural women in crumpled cotton saris, middle-class professionals to elderly peasants – who came out in their lakhs today.


It only deepened the inexplicable mystery of what made Basu the most formidable leader of the masses, though he resolutely refused to be a mass leader in the usual sense of the term. Basu never played to the gallery, he did not indulge in rhetorical flourishes or make fiery promises – in or out of power. He never lost his upper-class bearing and acquired some quintessentially English traits – spry and dapper in demeanor, wry and laconic in speech – that he did not shed long after he returned from London on New Year’s Day in 1940.


Despite this seeming lack of “mass leader” characteristics, or more likely because of it, he evoked a sense of awe and admiration among generations of Bengalis (and many non-Bengalis, too) who may not have supported his party or ideology.


Standing far behind in the queue outside the Assembly gates, Naren Chandra from Madhyamgram finds it difficult to articulate quite why he is here. He finally says: “Jyoti Basu was a good man. He was a straight man. He had no duplicity, no hypocrisy.”


Sadek Ali, a policeman from Howrah who has bunked work, says: “Jyoti Basu made us feel proud – everyone knows Bengal because of him.”


For others like Samir Ghatak of Serampore and Basudeb Maiti from a South 24-Parganas village, who hail from Left families and have gradually got disillusioned with the “rot” that has set in within the CPM, Basu brings back memories of the Left’s heyday – and they are paying homage not just to him but to their own erstwhile idealism and youth too.


Just as for Mira Banerjee from Jadavpur, bidding goodbye to Basu is to reaffirm her shaky faith in the future of the CPM. And 40-year-old Anindya, speaking for a generation that had little sympathy with the Left Front’s record of governance, says wistfully: “We grew up with the legend of Jyoti Basu long before we knew who he was. When I was a little kid, I believed that two entities would never die -Phantom and Jyoti Basu.”


Basu’s body was handed over to SSKM Hospital at the end of the day’s journey. Neuroscientists are keen to scan his brain. But neither medical science nor political analysis can quite explain the peculiar alchemy that enabled the no-nonsense pragmatist exercise such a mesmerizing hold over his people – that came out in all its splendour today in the course of the patriarch’s last journey.


(The Telegraph, Calcutta, January 20, 2010 supplied by SACW)

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