Suniti Kumar Ghosh, 1918-2014

Suniti Kumar Ghosh died on May 11, at the age of 96.  It is not a passing to be mourned but a life, rich and meaningful, to be celebrated.

On the face of it, his life had two major phases: the first was one of direct political activity; the second was of research and writing.

He became closely associated with the Tebhaga struggle in 1946-47, and accepted membership of the Communist Party of India (CPI).  He left the Party after the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956, but India’s China war of 1962 made him feel he should take active part in politics again, and he told his wife that the future would be uncertain.  After some initial refusals, he was persuaded to join the CPI(M) when it was formed; but by 1966 he felt ‘enough was enough’ and left the CPI(M).  When the peasant uprising in Naxalbari in 1967 arose, led by some communists of the Siliguri area after their release from prison, he joined the communist revolutionary movement.  He became a member of the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR) and, later, a member of the Central Committee of CPI(ML).  He edited the central organ of the CPI(ML), Liberation, right from its inception till April 1972 (in later years he was to compile a rich anthology of writings from Liberation).  He remained in the movement for the rest of the decade, and only returned home when he was left with no option.  In that decade of the movement not only he, but his family (his wife Anima and his two daughters), suffered turmoil, uncertainty, hardship and repression.  He never forgot the martyrs of that movement, to whom he dedicated several of his writings; nor “the debt — that can never be repaid — I owe to those who, sharing my ideals and braving immense risks, gave me shelter and food when shelter was more precious than food.”

Thereafter began a second phase, in which he steadily and systematically worked, largely on his own, to produce a rich mine of literature: The Indian Big Bourgeoisie: Its Genesis, Growth and Character (1985, then revised and enlarged in 2000); India and the Raj 1919-1947: Glory, Shame and Bondage (vol. 1: 1989; vol. 2: RUPE, 1995; re-published as a single volume in 2007 by Sahitya Samsad); The Historic Turning-Point: A Liberation Anthology (in two vols., 1992 and 1993); The Tragic Partition of Bengal (2002); Naxalbari — Before and After: Reminiscences and Appraisal (2009).  Apart from these, he published a number of shorter publications or booklets: Development Planning in India: Lumpendevelopment and Imperialism(RUPE, 1997, 2002); Imperialism’s Tightening Grip on Indian Agriculture (1998); India’s Constitution and Its Review (RUPE, 2001); The Himalayan Adventure: India-China War of 1962 — Causes and Consequences (RUPE, 2002); and India’s Nationality Problem and Ruling Classes (1996, RUPE 2013).  He also wrote a number of articles, some of which were excerpts from forthcoming books; these he published in journals such as Aspects of India’s Economy, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Economic and Political Weekly, Frontier, Monthly Review, and Visvabharati Quarterly.  (Of particular importance was an article of his in Monthly Review, “Marx on India” [January 1984], later incorporated in The Indian Big Bourgeoisie.)  Apart from this we know there were writings in Bengali, such as The Political Economy of Bengal’s Dismemberment, but we do not have further information on them.  He was writing as late as 2010, at the age of 92, after which his body simply prevented him from continuing.

But in fact these two contrasting phases of his life were a unity.  For his prodigious labours in the second phase were never ends in themselves; but were always meant solely and explicitly to serve the same cause to which he devoted himself in the earlier phase.  Now no longer in a position to directly participate in the revolutionary movement, he took up certain neglected political tasks of that movement as if he had been assigned them.  In particular, the analysis and substantiation of the character of India’s ruling classes, the nature of modern India’s historical development and political economy, the revolutionary struggles of the Indian people to transform Indian society, and the political leadership of that revolutionary movement.  All these were aimed at explaining why the Indian people, despite their heroic efforts, are in their present misery — that is, not from the angle of merely interpreting the world, but of changing it.  He wrote in the Preface to the second volume of India and the Raj:

Reviewing the first volume of this book, a professor teaching history at a university correctly referred to me as “not a trained historian”.  But I hardly regret the fact, for if I had been what he calls a “trained historian”, I might have been one of his kind.

Like Jean Chesneaux, the French historian, I believe that history and historians are not above the class struggle.  As he put it, “our knowledge of the past is a dynamic factor in the development of society, a significant stake in the political and ideological struggles of today, a sharply contested area.  What we know of the past can be of service to the Establishment or to the people’s movement.”  “In class societies”, he said, “history is one of the tools the ruling class uses to maintain its power.  The state apparatus tries to control the past at the level of both political action and ideology.”  “The revision of official history”, therefore, “is regarded as one of the essential points of departure for the people’s struggles.”

Yet this never meant he would distort or cover up history to suit some predetermined aim.  In writing his reminiscences about the Naxalite movement, he stated firmly: “[O]ur reverence for our leaders is not uncritical.  We shall not gloss over the errors in their policies and deeds, their shortcomings and limitations; rather we shall expose them fully without sparing anybody’s sensibilities.  While criticizing wrong policies of our leaders, we are engaging in self-criticism.”  At the same time, when making such criticism, he always differentiated between what he believed to be the primary, positive, aspect, and the secondary, negative, aspect.

Suniti Ghosh’s steadfast devotion to the revolutionary cause was recognised and reciprocated by countless activists, who hungrily searched for his latest works, in order to put them to use in changing the world.  As a result, these publications frequently were sold out, and went through several reprintings/editions (we continue to get letters/mails attempting to order various of his writings published by others).  Translations of his writings appeared in languages such as Tamil, Malayalam, and Hindi; but the use made of them has been much wider.

We at RUPE came into contact with him in 1988, when we sent him an early publication of ours, and he responded warmly, at the same time offering constructive suggestions.  From then on it was one of our most important relationships.  Not only did RUPE publish several of his articles and writings, beginning with the second volume of India and the Raj (1995), but a steady flow of correspondence between us enriched our understanding and greatly inspired us.  Although he couched his sentences with care and courtesy, when he did not agree, he would remain firm, and provide his reasons.

It was not only the grievous loss of a daughter to cancer that made him wish the end would come sooner.  Nor was it the terrible, unceasing back pain.  Rather, what he complained to us was that in his condition he could no longer work, in which case, what was the point of living?  That itself says much about him.  He leaves behind his work, which is not his own, but belongs to all of us.

This obituary was first published in the blog of the Research Unit for Political Economy (RUPE) on 12 May 2014.

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