Comrade AB Bardhan, former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), passed away on 2 January in New Delhi after prolonged illness. He was 92. My heartfelt lal salaam to him. He was a selfless and dedicated communist, whose heart beat for the working class and the poor in general. I had the privilege of knowing him well.
The communist movement today is in steep decline, not only in India but also all over the world. There are reasons for it, which the communists must honestly and self-critically examine. However, even those who do not agree with the communist theory will have to admit that many communist leaders and workers personified a high degree of idealism, commitment and simplicity in their lives.
Here is an indelible memory of how I first met Comrade Bardhan.
The year was 1987. The 40th year of India's Independence. I was then a freelance journalist in Bombay ... It was a time when terrorism in Punjab was at its peak.
The year was 1987. The 40th year of India's Independence. I was then a freelance journalist in Bombay. I was still a communist sympathiser, even though my visit to the (now extinct) Soviet Union in 1985 at the beginning of the Gorbachev era, had planted seeds of serious rethinking and disillusionment about the theory, practice and propaganda of communism.
It was a time when terrorism in Punjab was at its peak. A large part of it was sponsored by Pakistan, where the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq had been supporting the separatist movement for Khalistan. It was Pakistani ruling establishment's way of taking revenge against the partition of Pakistan and India's support for the liberation struggle of Bangladesh. Many pro-Khalistan terrorists were given shelter and training across the border in the western part of Punjab.
The dawn of the 1980s saw tranquillity in the Indian side of Punjab shattered. A section of the Sikh community had been enraged by the Indian Army's "Operation Bluestar" at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest Sikh shrine, in June 1984 to remove Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, a strong proponent of Khalistan, and his armed supporters. It was part of a chain of fateful events that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her own bodyguards inside her residence on 31 October 1984. This heinous crime was used as a pretext for carrying out an anti-Sikh carnage in the national capital in which nearly 3,000 innocent Sikhs were killed by murderous mobs with the security forces remaining complicit onlookers.
I contacted Comrade Bardhan, who said, "I am going to Punjab to join the beginning our campaign [in Punjab, against Khalistani terrorism]. You may accompany me."
This fuelled more terrorist attacks in Punjab. All those who opposed Khalistan were targeted.
Lala Jagat Narain, founder of the Hind Samachar group of newspapers in Jalandhar, had been murdered in 1981. Indeed, 62 of his staff, including his son Ramesh Chandra, were gunned down over a period of time.
Among the prominent political leaders who became victims of terrorism in Punjab were Harcharan Singh Longowal, president of the Shiromani Akali Dal; Sukhdev Singh of the Akali Dal; Dr Baldev Prakash, president of the Punjab unit of the BJP; and Congress leader Sant Singh Liddar. (Much later, the Congress chief minister of Punjab, Beant Singh, was assassinated in a bomb blast in Chandigarh in 1995.) Targeted killing of bus passengers and migrant labourers had become common. In one of the most gruesome terrorist attacks, 27 Swayamsevaks of the RSS, who were participating in the daily shakha in Moga town, were shot dead.
Among the martyrs were also many communists, belonging to both CPI and CPI(M), including Deepak Dhavan, Darbara Singh, Gurnam Singh Uppal, Sohan Singh Dhesi, Surjeet Singh and Darshan Singh Canadian.
* * *
To mark the 40th anniversary of India's Independence, and also to demonstrate their opposition to Khalistani terrorism, the CPI and the CPI(M) had decided to organise (separate but coordinated) yatras in Punjab in August-September 1987. This prompted me to participate in them and also to write articles on them in newspapers. (I did write a feature in The Sunday Observer.) I contacted Comrade Prakash Karat of the CPI(M), who put me in touch with the office-bearers of his party in Punjab. I similarly contacted Comrade Bardhan of the CPI, who said, "I am going to Punjab to join the beginning our campaign. You may accompany me."
I couldn't help thinking... "Here is a communist leader who is well known all over the country. He is travelling with me in a train like an ordinary man.
I will not forget that journey. Our train from Delhi to Amritsar was to leave late in the night. But when we arrived at the station, we learnt that it was delayed by several hours. Comrade Bardhan said, "Let's spend the night at the platform itself." We chatted for a little while. I then said, "Comrade, you should sleep for a few hours." He said, "No, you sleep, and I shall remain awake." I refused, saying, "I am a young man. You need rest." He agreed. He took out a blanket from his modest-looking bag, spread it over the bench and went to sleep.
I couldn't help thinking of him in deep admiration: "Here is a communist leader who is well known all over the country. He is travelling with me in a train like an ordinary man. He is also sleeping on the railway platform like an ordinary man."
I spent about 20 days in Punjab, dividing my time between the anti-Khalistan campaigns of the CPI(M) and CPI, mostly in the rural areas of the state. Besides Amritsar, I visited Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Moga, Ludhiana, Faridkot, Barnala, Sangrur, Batala and Muktsar.
The sight of long lines of village people, both Sikhs and Hindus, holding the red communist party flags and trekking through the lush green paddy fields, was a visual feast. But more invigorating were the slogans they raised:
"Hindu Sikh noon jo ladaye, oh desh da vairi hai."
(He who makes Hindus and Sikhs fight, is an enemy of the nation.)
"Atvad wakhwad murdabad."
(Down with extremism and secessionism.)
"Hindu Sikh ekta Zindabad."
(Long live Hindu-Sikh unity.)
One slogan of those days that still echoes in my mind with poignant power is this:
"Hindu Sikh noon lad nahin dena, san santaali ba nahin dena."
(We shall not let Hindus and Sikhs fight against one another; we shall not let 1947, when India -- and Punjab -- was partitioned on communal lines, happen again.)
Comrade Bardhan's speeches at all the rallies were captivating... He would urge the people to remember that national unity begins with village unity and town unity.
Of all the provinces of undivided India, Punjab was the worst affected by the blood-soaked Partition in 1947. Tens of thousands of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were killed in Partition riots. Millions of people, who were uprooted from their homes, migrated from side of Punjab to the other.
Comrade Bardhan's speeches at all the rallies were captivating. (CPI's then general secretary, late Indrajit Gupta, had also come to address some rallies.) He would emphasise the need for preserving India's national unity, and urge the people to remember that national unity begins with village unity and town unity. He would also appeal to the misguided pro-Khalistani youth to give up the path of violence and join the democratic mainstream.
There are many other memories and reflections associated with my (first) visit to Punjab in 1987, but I shall write about them some other time. Suffice it to conclude this post with an important observation. Punjab suffered hellish trauma for over two decades. But neither the slogan of Khalistan nor the fear of murderous terrorists succeeded in breaking the basic unity of Sikhs and Hindus of Punjab. The evil design of those across the border in Pakistan, who wanted to divide India, did not succeed.
In this courageous struggle to safeguard India's national unity and integrity, sacrifices were made by all the political parties in Punjab -- Akali Dal, Congress, BJP, CPI, CPI (M), CPI (ML) and others. Indeed, the sacrifices made by our Sikh brethren surpassed those of the Hindus.
This important lesson must never be forgotten.
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