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I met Siddhartha Shankar Ray in early October last year when I interviewed him for Outlook. Days later, on October 20, his 89th birthday, he approached me to write his biography. I agreed. However, unfortunately, the task remained incomplete since the veteran Congress leader died earlier this month. But work on the book had been in progress for the past one year. Here are some memories that Ray shared with me over several interview sessions -- Dola Mitra
Indira And I
I was two years old and Indira five when we apparently first met, or so my mother told me. She came to meet me along with her grandfather. Actually it was Indira’s grandfather, Motilal Nehru, who had come to meet my grandfather, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das. Indira was brought along. Evidently they couldn’t remember whether I was a boy or a girl so they brought me a doll. But as soon as it was handed to me, Indira scowled at me, grabbed the doll and tried to snatch it away. I put up a good fight. I don’t remember what happened but my mother later told me that there was a great struggle and Indira got the head and I was left holding one of the legs.
Indira and I were very close. I sometimes like to read the letters she sent me. (Starts reading from one.) This is dated December 21, 1980: “Dear Siddhartha, All your cheering words cannot stop graying hair or wrinkles. The world is in a sad state and man, in spite of all his opportunities, seems to be looking higher but slipping downwards. I have just been to Shri Krishnamoorthy. At 85, he hardly seems to have aged, but his views on humanity are depressing.” Here’s another one: “What a lovely raincoat you’ve sent. I hope it will invite the rains whenever we need them. Thank you for the gift, your good wishes and for all that you are doing for Bengal.”
Indira Gandhi And Sanjay
I had known Indira Gandhi since childhood. But our lifelong friendship came under strain over the excesses of the Emergency, which was largely due to Sanjay Gandhi’s interference and influence. Indira had confided in me a number of times about feeling helpless and how she could do nothing about it. I have seen her crying many times. She realised he (Sanjay) was going overboard and things were getting out of hand. She often told me, “Siddhartha, I’m helpless. What am I going to do with this boy?” But when it came to Sanjay she wouldn’t take my advice. She would always listen to him ultimately. I suspect Indira was afraid of Sanjay. He had a hold over her. Rajiv Gandhi was an excellent and able man, unlike his brother. It was he who asked me to become the Punjab governor. His untimely death was a big blow to me. After that the Congress party became headless. As for Sonia Gandhi, she must be intelligent enough if she is leading a party like the Congress.
1971, Pakistan Surrenders: Ray was CM of Bengal during the birth of Bangladesh. (Photograph by Corbis, From Outlook, November 29, 2010)
A Morale Booster For The Mukti Bahini
“I was taken to a jungle in East Bengal where a thousand Mukti Bahini boys sang Amar sonar Bangla. I was in tears.”
In 1971, before the Bangladesh war, Indira Gandhi told me that she felt the Bangladesh Mukti Bahini (liberation army) would get a huge morale boost if a Bengali-speaking minister from Delhi gave them a pep talk. She told me no one will ever know about this if you succeed and no one will blame you if you fail. This meant that the mission was not official. Of course, I understood. The status of the freedom movement under international law wasn’t clear then, and of course, India didn’t want to go around giving ‘morale boosts’ to separatist movements in other countries. I never asked her to tell me whether she took this decision on her own or whether she consulted anyone else. I did go to East Pakistan, which included a tense stay at the home of a friend who was clearly worried about my safety but knew better than to ask. Then, there was a two-hour jeep ride deep into an East Bengal jungle where a thousand boys greeted me by singing Amar Sonar Bangla. I was moved to tears.
A Reluctant Constitutional Lawyer
My practice marked me primarily as a constitutional lawyer, but I didn’t start out with that intention. I was a law student when the Indian Constitution was being drafted and debated about, but I was not interested in the Constitution when it was being written. My aim was to not know any more than I needed to pass the law course! I was not into philosophy or economics. I loved English and Bengali literature. Rabindrasangeet thrilled me. I was very fond of cricket. It was only when my practice got under way that I realised the importance of the constitutional underpinnings of all the legal issues I would have to address in the new Republic. Even then, it was not so much the Constitution’s overarching ideals that attracted me, but rather, its potential usefulness in solving societal problems. I was always a pragmatist about the law. I believed in using the law to reach just outcomes, even if that meant applying it in a way that was not necessarily intended by the framers of the Constitution.
Jyoti Basu And Other Comrades
Though we were political opponents, we were great friends. Politically we fought. We disagreed. I could not accept Jyoti’s silence on the issue of the Chinese aggression of 1962. It was tantamount to supporting China. Jyoti enjoyed his whisky. Publicly he rarely smiled but he had a great sense of humour. We share several good memories. Once Jyoti and I were campaigning in Chandannagar when a group of beautiful girls surrounded us asking for our autographs. They were more interested in Jyoti than me and let me off with just a signature. But they insisted that Jyoti write a few lines for each of them in Bengali. But Jyoti refused. Later, while going back to Calcutta, I asked him in the car why he refused to oblige them with a few lines. He shot back: “Arrey, parley toh likhbo (I would if could write Bengali)!”
Similarly, I have had some funny interactions with former speaker Somnath Chatterjee. He was an excellent advocate who ruined his career by joining politics. I recall a case in the Calcutta High Court that I was fighting with Somnath arguing for the other side. I told the judge: “Your honour, my respected opponent’s arguments are bullish.” Somnath promptly hit back: “Your honour, my respected opponent is calling me a bull because I am ugly.”
As for the other Communists, I feel finance minister Ashim Dasgupta is a very qualified man. He is from MIT. He is just in the wrong party. And Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is a very good man. An honest man. But he doesn’t have it in him to be chief minister. He should step down from the post....