A life long communist, Comrade Bardhan, as he was widely called, was general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) from 1996 to 2012. Born in what is now Bangladesh, he joined the CPI in 1940 in Nagpur at a time when it was outlawed. He was initially active in student politics, and from 1945-48, was the secretary of the All India Students Federation. Bardhan then became active in union politics, organising workers in the power, railway, textile, defence and other sectors. He was active in the Quit India movement, and statehood politics in Maharashtra, and went to jail several times. In the midst of all this, he got an MA in economics and an LLB. In 1957, Bardhan was elected to the Maharashtra state assembly. Among other positions he held in the party at different points of time, one important post was as general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress. He also wrote extensively on adivasis, minorities and the history of the working class movement.
After his wife, Padma, who taught at Nagpur University and supported the family, passed away in 1986, Comrade Bardhan moved into the party office, Ajoy Bhawan. When he died, after being admitted to hospital with a stroke in December 2015, he left behind some books, a rusted steel cupboard with some clothes, a red suitcase, and thousands of admirers across party lines, who he had helped and influenced. He is survived by his son Ashok, daughter Alka, their families, and his party comrades.
In 2009, A.B. Bardhan invited Jaya Mehta, a senior economist and social activist, and Vineet Tiwari, general secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Progressive Writers’ Association from Indore, to enhance the activities of the Joshi-Adhikari Institute of Social Studies (JAISS) – the institute named after two legendary CPI leaders, PC Joshi and G. Adhikari. Living and functioning out of Ajoy Bhawan, Vineet developed a close relationship with Comrade Bardhan. In a moving tribute, Vineet writes a farewell letter to him:
Dear Comrade Bardhan,
To write someone’s obituary, one needs to believe that person is no more. With all due regard to materialism, I am not willing to accept that you have gone. It is true that you are not there to answer our questions anymore and it is also true that I can no longer offer you homemade laddus made by my mother, which you used to like very much. While going upstairs, after taking a walk in the Ajoy Bhawan yard, you won’t knock my door and say “Haan bhai?” (what’s up?). Despite all this, I feel that you are still around.
So, because you have done something new by bidding goodbye to your physical presence, I will also add something new to our relations. I have never written a letter to you, so I am writing one now.
I want to start by telling you some funny things. I collected several condolence messages, which appeared after the rumour of your death spread on December 7, 2015. I was looking forward to laughing over them with you, and discussing the hurried character of social media, where instant reactions are more important than substance.
On January 2, 2016, your son Ashok, Com. Adhikari, your caretaker Kanhaiya and I were standing outside the ICU Ward no. 6 of G. B Pant Hospital’s Neurology Department. Somebody told us that the news of Com. Bardhan’s death was being broadcast on Malayalam TV Channels. I immediately called a journalist in one of these channels, a friend of mine, and told him I was at the hospital and no such thing had happened. I scolded him for not checking the facts, before putting them on air. In the meantime, Ashok was called inside the ICU by the doctor and told that you had passed away.
When Ashok told me, I first wondered how the media had known of your death, even before us. The answer was obvious: some hospital staff member had thought it more important to inform the media, than tell the family.
When living, your engagement with the media was very different. You were friendly to young journalists and laughed with them, but would refuse to give them a bite if you thought the issue was not of real importance. You were polite, but also stubborn. When I first moved to Ajoy Bhawan in 2010, we hardly knew each other. But I saw you dealing with intellectuals, with common people and with comrades from various quarters. Perhaps you were harsh at times, but you always listened. As Shabnam Hashmi said, you were the most easily accessible leader.
Accessible, even across party lines
I remember when some comrades came from Madhya Pradesh when you were resting in your room. You welcomed them. There were never any qualms; and no one felt the need to take a prior appointment. When Soni Sori and Linga from Chhattisgarh (who later joined the Aam Admi Party) came to Ajoy Bhawan, I took them to your room, where D. Raja and Annie also joined us. You heard their sufferings and asked Raja to write a letter to the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Another morning, a few years ago, I was surprised to see you in Ajoy Bhawan before 10 am. This was a time when you stayed in a flat with Sudhakar Reddy. When I asked you, “Comrade, how come you are here this early?,” you replied, “Do you know where I am coming from?” Seeing that I was clueless, you said, “Chidambaram, I went to meet P. Chidambaram regarding some medical requirements of Kobad Ghandy (of the CPI Maoist) as he is ill in jail.”
When we showed you photographs of women standing in water and doing jalsatyagrah in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh, I remember the pain which appeared on your face. You immediately wanted to do something. My decision to become a party member was less the result of my knowledge of Marxist theory and more because I observed you construct a life based on that theory.
Open but principled
When the 2014 Lok Sabha election result was about to be declared, someone circulated an article accusing you and Abhay Sahu in Odisha of trying to weaken the anti- POSCO movement, because of the CPI’s interest in allying with the Biju Janata Dal. I informed you about the mail in circulation, and asked you hesitatingly, “Comrade, is it true? That we allowed the struggle to weaken so that some seats could be negotiated with the BJD?” You responded with your usual firmness, “What rubbish. We contest elections and we make alliances but that doesn’t mean that anybody can ask us to change our politics.” The alliance eventually did not take place.
You remembered thousands of comrades by name, you did not follow bureaucratic channels of functioning, and you did not hesitate to break or cross lines if it was to help others.When Jaya Mehta read that 14 Musahars had been given a life sentence in the Amousi carnage case (in which 16 Kurmis were killed in 2009), she talked to you and said that it should be investigated. She had the feeling that the Amousi case, which was projected as a caste issue, actually involved a land conflict. After listening to her calmly, you called Badri Narayan Lal who was then Bihar secretary and asked for an update on the Amousi case. Since Amousi is in Khagaria district, he said he would get back to you after discussing this with Satyanarayan Singh, who is from Khagaria. Without waiting for him, you directly called Satyanarayan Singh and asked him to help investigate the Amousi case. The very next day after the Patna party congress, we left for Amousi. It was one of the most difficult terrains we had ever seen. The report we wrote, thanks to your support, perhaps contributed towards the eventual acquittal of the accused.
You surprised me after the Bihar assembly election results in 2015. Again, it was Jaya who suggested that comrades from other states should help campaign for Left candidates. You immediately endorsed the idea but added, “your presence should not burden the local party.” You were actively involved in the election plan but when the results were declared, and I phoned you from Indore, you were not sad. You just said, “We need to do more work. Ladenge, koi baat nahi.” (We shall fight, don’t get disheartened.)
Simplicity, straight forwardness, compassion, warmth and welcoming behaviour – you were an amalgamation of all these good human qualities. But what made you different was the capacity to foresee the times ahead and the ability to open yourself to new options with a left perspective.
S. P. Shukla was very keen that you start learning the internet, and asked me to teach you. One day, you called me to your room and brought a small laptop out of the drawer of your table. You told me it had been lying there unused since your son Ashok bought it. I was surprised to see how fast you started learning. The only problem was that you were afraid of making some mistake, which would spoil the computer. And my many reassurances didn’t work in this regard. Unfortunately, our traveling schedules didn’t allow us to continue further with this exercise.
One day, Shuklaji insisted that you should write about yourself. You refused, saying, “Autobiographies are always biased. What I think about issues concerning society is clear from my writings and what I think about people is not important for people to know since it is subjective. People who have written about me have ascribed good or bad qualities that I did not know I possessed.”
This also reminds me of your dialogue with Jaya one evening in Ajoy Bhawan, when she was leaving for Amsterdam to address an international meeting. Jaya was nervous and feeling unprepared to take a six hour session with international students. You said “Hey, why are you going there? Our Praful (Bidwai) died there, you know.” Then you calmed Jaya by sharing your own experience, “You know one thing. I also feel nervous many times when I have to speak. But it is only for the first 2-3 minutes, then the words flow automatically.”
I remember when I had a problem regarding my organisation, the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). It was troubling me emotionally, and I was almost on the verge of crying. Jaya took me to you and asked you to give me direction. I told you about my dilemma – having to accept the resignation of a senior writer who had brought me into the PWA. You heard me peacefully without saying anything. Then you came to my room in the evening and started in your usual style, “You know one thing?” And then you described how you joined the party after being inspired by stories of S.A. Dange, but when the party decided to take action against him, it was you and Homi Daji who sat together, in this very room, here where this bed is kept, and drafted the resolution. I overcame my emotions and did what was needed for the organisation.
Working till the end
On November 28-29, 2015 you attended a two-day seminar of Asian communist party delegates on the occasion of 90 years of the CPI. But what you were most keen on was a symposium on communal fascism and intolerance, which was held on December 2, 2015. You were there from 9 in the morning to 7 in the evening and even later, you talked a lot about the future plans of the Joshi-Adhikari Institute of Social Studies with S. P. Shukla who came all the way from Pune on your insistence. That was the last time people saw you in public.
I came to your room to bid you goodbye on December 5, 2015. I told you that I was going to Govind Pansare’s house to interview Uma Pansare, Smita, Megha and other comrades; you held my hand with your firm grip and without saying anything in words, gave me a reassuring look. I remember you saying that you had lost many people in this long life of nine decades but never cried as much as you did after hearing about the murder of Com. Pansare. He was very dear to you. I left on the 5th and got the news of your stroke on the 7th. I was sure of giving you a book on Pansare in the New Year as a gift. Your return gift would have been to read the book.
We saw the entire film Fall of Berlin on a laptop together with a young journalist, Sachin. I remember very vividly how you became nostalgic when Stalin appeared in the film and gave his famous speech celebrating victory over fascism. You asked us to pause the movie and told us that you heard that speech along with other comrades on radio in Nagpur. You watched that entire movie with a lot of interest but when it was over, you made a characteristic ice-cold comment. “It was a propaganda film and not a very artistic one.”
Later, on the occasion of your fast against corruption at Jantar Mantar, where JNU IPTA sang some revolutionary songs, you told me that you used to sing when you were 14-15 years old. Along with a friend, you sang to attract people to public meetings. After some persuasion, you sang us a few lines of a Baul song in Ajoy Bhawan. I think this is the reason you remained interested in cultural activities till the end. Coincidentally, when I took a photographer to your room, I found the latest issue of Vasudha (the literary magazine of the MP Progressive Writers’ Association) lying on the table.
You told us stories about your underground activities. You told us about how you remembered your mother’s courage when travelling in a boat on the Ganges, which was about to sink in a thunderstorm. You narrated how you were groomed in politics: “I used to go to various political meetings with a senior leader famous for his speeches. He made jokes and the audience would applaud. I also used to speak but my speeches were not that effective. I thought maybe I should also make some jokes in my speech. So I went and told jokes to the audience. It had no effect. I thought perhaps the audience was in no mood for jokes. However, when my leader made a speech and told jokes, they applauded. I felt very frustrated. Then my leader called me and told me in Marathi, ‘You spoke well, but why copy? Make your own style.’ I understood then, people want the original, not a copy.”
Once when you were sitting in this room where I am writing, you informed me that this was the same room where Gangadhar Adhikari, Romesh Chandra, Kaifi Azmi, Homi Daji and many others had stayed. I responded saying I had heard about this from other comrades, and all of them including Lenin whose bust is in front of my room, knock at my door at night and we discuss various issues. You laughed heartily.
Our conversations will continue
On January 4, 2016, we bid you goodbye at the Nigambodh Ghat crematorium. I opened my door many times that night to see your photograph placed near Lenin’s bust. You and I were alone in the corridor of Ajoy Bhawan. I got the feeling that even though you lived over 90 years, your departure was far too soon for me. After a certain age, it is very difficult to make new friends, and you were one of my closest and most sensible friends. We had many unfinished discussions on China, Vietnam, Nepal, worker-peasant alliances, cooperatives, strengthening the party, etc and I feel at a loss. I know that no one remains forever. But people like you live on through their ideas. In the coming nights, I know you will join my discussions with Lenin, Romesh Chandra and all the others, and I will offer you kettle made coffee again.
I wanted to show you a photograph of yours taken on 2nd December, 2016, but you didn’t allow me to do that. In the photo, your magnetic smiling shining eyes are very beautiful. This is a beauty one only gets if you dream of a bright future and have a clear understanding of the past. This beauty has to be earned.
Lal Salaam, Com. Bardhan. You will remain with us. I hope your presence will bring out something good in all of us for the betterment of the Party and for the cause of socialism.
Your chum (as you called me once),