“Trust Outlook to try to extract everything about the book before it even comes out,” Somnath Chatterjee chuckled. I was interviewing him at his home in Santiniketan before the launch of his memoirs, “Keeping the Faith” and the question which extracted that amused response was, “What are the deepest, darkest secrets that you reveal in your autobiography?” He found it humorous and was convinced we were inching for what he termed a “scoop”.
But Somnath Da, as anyone who came in contact with him eventually called him, zeroing on that warm, familiar term of endearment from the initial “Mr Chatterjee” or “Sir” or Somnath Babu”, was indeed hiding some deep, dark secrets behind that amiable laughter. He eventually revealed during the course of the conversation that he did hide a secret and that was the deep, dark “hurt” that he felt since his expulsion from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 2008. So deeply was that dark emotion embedded in his psyche that in every subsequent interaction – more than a dozen interviews or meetings I had with Somnath Da – he spoke about it.
Indeed what transpired in 2008 was almost unthinkable considering the position the veteran politician enjoyed in his party which he joined in 1968. In the forty years since, he came to be known as one of the pioneers of the CPI(M)’s movements which overthrew the Congress government from the state of West Bengal and wrested power in 1977. He had tears in his eyes each time he mentioned the farmers of West Bengal and their plight and exploitation before the CPI(M) ushered in the land reforms in the initial days of their reign. Somnath Da was also a revered, Cambridge-educated lawyer whom the party relied heavily upon during litigation. He became a Parliamentarian in 1971 and was considered one of the most erudite debaters who held his fellow politicians spellbound not just with his knowledge and scholarship but also with his wry sense of humor. In an interview to Outlook, former West Bengal chief minister, the late Siddhartha Sankar Ray, who was also a renowned lawyer, said this about Somnath: “We were both arguing an issue, he representing CPI(M) and I, the Congress, of course. Suddenly he stopped in the middle and looked at the Speaker and said, ‘Clearly though my friend may be better looking, I am a better debater’.” It evidently had the entire lower house in splits.
In 2008, Somnath was expelled from the CPI(M). The facts are well-known. The CPI(M) was supporting the Congress-led UPA-I government at the Centre but in July 2008 it withdrew support because of strong disagreements on the question of signing the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. As amongst the most seasoned politicians, who was also reportedly held in high regard by the Congress, including by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Somnath was chosen to be the Speaker of Parliament. When the party withdrew support, Somnath refused to step down arguing that it would be tantamount to disrespecting the honour that was conferred upon him by the entire house. In what was called a rushed closed-door meeting of the CPI(M) Central Committee and Polit Bureau members, it was decided to expel Somnath. Though CPI(M) party decisions are reportedly taken in unison, ironing out the differences of opinion of members, Somanth himself let it be known that then CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat was for expulsion and current General Secretary Sitaram Yechury was against it. “But then it is okay for me to speak about it,” Somnath Da said smiling, this time forcing a sad, resigned laugh, “Because I am no longer in the party.”
At his house, both in Calcutta and Santiniketan, Somnath Da made it a point to ensure you do not leave without having endless cups of tea and snacks. “Aren’t you hungry?” he would ask intermittently when the conversation went past lunch or dinner time. Before you could say, “Don’t worry, Somnath Da,” there would be more food on the coffee table.
During my last phone conversation with him, he said, “I am not being able to stand up anymore. My legs have given way.” I felt a stab of sadness. During interviews at his Santiniketan house, we always walked around in the back garden overlooking a forest. “I love to take a stroll whenever I can,” he had said. This time he was in his Calcutta house. “I am not keeping well but do drop in. It is always good to talk about my past,” he said. Before I could make that final visit, news filtered in that he was in the hospital. He breathed his last today.
So here we are discussing Somnath Da’s past. Only difference is that he is no longer a participant. RIP Somnath Da.