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India's Communist Patriarch Dies At 95


Political leaders from across India gathered in the city of Calcutta today for the funeral of a man known as the patriarch of Indian Marxism. When Jyoti Basu died this past weekend, he was 95. He was one of Indias most prominent politicians and one of the worlds longest serving elected communist leaders. These days, capitalism and consumerism are sweeping across India, but as NPRs Philip Reeves reports, Calcutta is one of last bastions of Marxism.

PHILIP REEVES: Kolkata is a city addicted to politics. Hundreds of grubby red flags bearing the communist hammer and sickle flutter by the side of the road leading from the airport.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: You dont have to drive far before you run into a Marxist with bullhorn. A few miles down the road, someone else is making a speech.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: This time its one of the communists political foes. Hes undeterred by the traffic, the mustard yellow taxis and grimy buses, the bullocks and bikes, all battling to carve a path through yet another jam. That scene a couple of days ago is what is like on pretty much any average day in Kolkata. Thats why they say politics runs in the veins of the city. Thats why some people call it the red fortress. Today though was different than most. Today the city paused in its stride for the funeral of Jyoti Basu, the man Indias media calls the king of the communists. Kolkata is capital of the state of West Bengal. For 23 years, Basu was West Bengals chief minister, in charge of a communist-led coalition thats still in power.

From afar, West Bengal may seem pretty remote. On the map youll find it tucked into a corner of eastern India next to Bangladesh on a fertile sweep of land where the Ganges flows out into the Bay of Bengal. Yet its one of the most economically important parts of the region, the gateway to East Asia, including China. The populations roughly the same as Germanys, more than 80 million.

(Soundbite of crowd)

REEVES: The people of West Bengal are fond of saying they can pick out an intellectual from a 100 yards. They almost consider intellectuals to be a class in their own right. In this coffee shop there seemed to be quite a few. Bespectacled figures, hair swept back, earnestly holding forth around the tables. Among them is Chandrasekhar Bhattacharya, a writer and journalist. The conversation turns to why there is in West Bengal such a strong tradition of leftist politics.

Mr. CHANDRASEKHAR BHATTACHARYA (Journalist): The first English education, first newspaper, first college, first university of India, first printed book came up in Bengal. It was more developed, more intellectual.

REEVES: This particular coffee shops run by a cooperative, as you'd perhaps expect in this left-leaning city. Yet the waiters are wearing the same faded white livery and crested turbans that their predecessors wore when Kolkata was capital of Britains Indian empire. West Bengal has a long and painful colonial history. Bhattacharya thinks thats what created the regions leftist leaders.

Mr. BHATTACHARYA: They understood the problem. They started the revolt against the colonies. Whether it is Portuguese or the French or British, they fought it.

REEVES: This produced an unusual phenomenon: upper class Indian intellectuals, often educated at Oxford or Cambridge, espousing the cause of the proletariat. Indias media gave wall to wall coverage to Basus funeral today, filling the airwaves with fulsome tributes. He was one of the most prominent Indian politicians since the country gained independence some six decades ago. He knew Nehru, one of Indias founding fathers, and was a friend of Nehrus daughter, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He knew the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Cubas Fidel Castro.

He met Vietnams Ho Chi Min, after whom Basu and his comrades named a Calcutta street. It wasnt by chance that they chose the street where the U.S. consulate is located. In the mid-'90s, Basu nearly became Indias prime minister. Yet he was a contradictory figure, a patrician disliked by Marxist ideologues for his pragmatism, and disliked by capitalist ideologues for his Marxism.

Abhirup Sarkar, a political and economic analyst, says Basu will be remembered for the early stages of his stint in office, particularly for land reforms.

Mr. ABHIRUP SARKAR (Political and Economic Analyst): His main achievements were agricultural development, empowerment - social empowerment for the poor, and also a green revolution based on (unintelligible) rice.

REEVES: Sarkar believes those achievements were offset by failure.

Mr. SARKAR: Industry was totally destroyed. There was militant trade unionism. Farms, the enterprises, the companies - they left Bengal, one after the other.

REEVES: Basu belonged to whats the called the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The party has been power in West Bengal for 33 years, winning seven elections in a row. Many observers predict it will finally be defeated in next years elections. It's been severely damaged by supporting several bloody attempts to push farmers and tribal people off their land to make way for big industrial projects. In the party offices you still find all the famous faces. There are pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, a retired government official, says the party abandoned Marx and Lenin a long time ago. But he says the hardline party faithful have not forgotten Stalin. In fact, he says, they openly admire the Soviet dictator and his violent methods.

Mr. DEBABRATA BANDYOPADHYAY (Retired Government Official): They consider themselves Stalinist because they think that Stalin is the great God. Violence to them is something very noble.

REEVES: Something very...

Mr. BANDYOPADHYAY: Very noble, noble. It's nothing that you are horrified about. It's very noble. Nothing unethical.

Mr. SARKAR: I think it is sinister. It is sinister, yes.

REEVES: Abhirup Sarkar says the Communist Party exercises a worrying degree of autocratic control right across the spectrum, from villages to universities.

Mr. SARKAR: Those things are controlled by the party, entirely.

REEVES: University positions, police?

Mr. SARKAR: Oh yes.

REEVES: Health service?

Mr. SARKAR: Oh yes, absolutely. Health, education, administration - these are the three things. Those are completely dominated by the party, completely.

REEVES: What about Jyoti Basu? Analysts tend to portray him as an astute, aloof and skilled administrator, but not as a tyrant. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, a former Indian ambassador to the U.S., was a political opponent of Basus, but also a very close friend.

Mr. SIDDHARTHA SHANKAR RAY (Indian Ambassador to U.S., Former): Some of them were Stalinists. Jyoti was a Stalinist to start with. But that doesnt matter whether he was a Stalinist or Leninist or whatever it was, didnt matter. He was Jyoti Basu, a very fine man, and a man that I loved, still love.

REEVES: Phillip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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