I last spoke to Somnath Chatterjee in June, a few days before his hospitalisation. It was, as always, a very gentle request. He was the embodiment of old world courtesy.
This was in connection with setting up of a Cancer Treatment Facility in Assam, the State of his birth, which he so dearly loved. Not one to turn away anyone in need who approached him, he reached out to me to extend help. It is some solace that I could nudge the project proposal forward.
But unlike always, most uncharacteristically, he did not respond to my birthday greetings of 25 July. I wondered because this was the first time my greetings had remained unacknowledged. There was an incredible meticulousness observed around the ritual of acknowledgement and it meant a lot to him. However, I understood.
Then 13th August intervened, with its shattering impact, marking the end of an era.
What I was totally unprepared for was that there would be no responses ever from the Titan of public life who I had the honour to work with for close to a decade spanning two stints.
The first was when he was the dynamic force behind a resurgent West Bengal as the Chairman of the State Industrial Development Corporation, tirelessly promoting its New Industrial Policy and I was his Advisor, Industry.
The second, after a brief gap, was during his momentous tenure as Speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha, when I was his Principal Secretary.
I unreservedly recognise him as being indisputably the most inspirational political figure I was associated with in my entire career in the civil services as an IAS officer. His high regard for professionalism, merit and integrity was unparalleled and his interactions with officials exceptional and unforgettable. Copy book, etched in gold.
I would like to quote excerpts from the Farewell Letter from The Speaker’s Team, of 20 May 2009, which he insisted on featuring in his Memoirs, Keeping the Faith.
He told me many a time in the last few years that this brought tears to his eyes and yet he’d go back to it repeatedly. Tough to associate such amazing sensibility with the Titan but that was how he was with his official Team!
Quote ~ “Respected Sir, “You have heard it before and you will, no doubt, hear it for a long time to come. Today it is our turn to tell you how proud we, in your team, are of you for having successfully etched a place in the annals of the country’s history as a distinguished parliamentarian and Speaker.
You truly epitomised the expectations and aspirations of the people as well as their fervent hope that parliamentary institutions would deliver on their constitutional mandate.
You set your sights high, always strove for perfection and never compromised with your principles and values. We have often heard it said of you and with full justification that you were the first ‘People’s Speaker’ who went the proverbial extra mile beyond the strict confines of rules, procedures and conventions, to uphold the image and dignity of the world’s largest democracy. There are not too many like you on the political firmament today!
“….. The recounting of details is not called for… as they are already well known and greatly acclaimed….
“Someone of your stature cannot simply ‘fade away’ as you, at times ‘threaten to’!
“…. We are there for you, wherever you may be and wherever we may be.
And, above all, thank you forbeing you.”
Most unfortunately despite the heartfelt wishes of his team and countless supporters, the twilight years were tinged with profound, unrelenting sadness, most unfairly thrust on him by those he believed, in his goodness and generosity, to be his comrades.
The Lal Salaam, along with million other laudatory salaams, was rightfully Somnath Chatterjee’s, at every eventful step of his life, all the way through to the final journey to SSKM Hospital to offer up his mortal remains for medical study and research.
As is well known, the Lal Salaam was formally denied him after the trust-vote on the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in Parliament on 22 July 2008. The now fastfading, grievously midget-like CPI-M, under general secretary Prakash Karat directed him to resign from the post of Speaker and vote against the motion which he refused to do.
The reasoning was clear and perfectly in sync with constitutional propriety that the Speaker ~ and an unanimously elected one at that ~ was not to be dictated to by a political party, even the one to which he owed prior allegiance.
Unquestionable neutrality was expected of him accordingly. Summary expulsion on 23 July was the unimaginably heavy price paid for upholding the cherished Constitution of our country.
Biman Bose, then West Bengal secretary of the party, had made the outlandish assertion that, “he may have acted according to the Indian Constitution, but the party constitution is supreme for party members!”
The grievous injustice done in 2008, borne with supreme dignity by Chatterjee for ten excruciatingly long years, was reinforced with callousness by the CPI-M within hours of his passing. In a sub-tepid, 94-word statement by its Politburo there was no mention of his long relationship with the party.
At this juncture the party may want to introspect and ask itself whether it would like to go down tainted in history for being the sole party in 71 years of independence to have penalised its leading luminary for demonstrating unequivocally the strength, in the face of unremitting pressure, to safeguard the Constitution of India.
What was it all for? Just one vote, which as the situation turned, would not have tilted matters anyway? All around us are political parties which deify their convicted netas and netris. Those amongst their leaders who are accused of criminal acts and are out on bail, are feted as more than super heroes.
In death, too, such political leaders are accorded manicmega farewells, with the who’s who from the capital and states, in dutiful attendance, donning passably sorrowful miens, promising Bharat Ratnas, as they fly off in their chartered chariots.
There is a well-worn aphorism that those who do not learn from mistakes are condemned to repeat them. Let it be said loud and clear that if principled, dedicated, political leaders with impeccable track records are dis-acknowledged and cast off by political parties and those in positions of authority, for myopic, chimeric gains, the ultimate loser is the citizen.
We are passing through difficult, challenging times. It is the Constitution that is looked up to with hope and reverence today much more than ever before. It is therefore very important that those who, during their time, contributed in realising its spirit be accorded their due.
The most befitting tribute to the distinguished legacy of Somnath Chatterjee will be to work to take away the abiding sadness he was impaled on by his party and political colleagues across a wide, blotched spectrum. He does not deserve to be failed in death as he was in the evening of his life.
Honour the Titan.
The writer is a retired IAS officer.