On July 6, 2000, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee arrived in Kolkata to inaugurate the birth centenary celebrations of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, his political mentor. Vajpayee was Mookerjee’s secretary when he was the president of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, who had sanctioned the use of the Netaji indoor stadium for the celebrations, and deputy chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee were invited to the function. But Basu was away in Israel, and the state cabinet gave the event a miss. A furious Vajpayee later told journalists that the leftists had insulted Bengal by boycotting the event. But then Mookerjee’s politics had always been unacceptable to a large section of the Indian political establishment, especially the left, as they believed that he promoted communal politics.
Not all would, however, agree. Legendary communist and iconic parliamentarian Hiren Mukherjee wrote this in a tribute published by the parliament secretariat: “Mookerjee could not be glibly branded as a mere communalist, though in the heat of politics he often was. One could always discern the catholicity and, also within limitations, the rationality of his outlook. He cherished freedom of opinion and was far away from socialism, as one could be, but there was in him an innate liberalism. He made no bones about his Hindu Mahasabha links but he was a champion of civil liberties and kept himself above the narrowness of communal chauvinism.”
Mookerjee saw himself as the defender of Hindu rights, especially in his homeland—the Muslim-majority Bengal province of British India. He felt the Congress was not standing up to the Muslim League, especially during the frequent communal riots in Bengal. And he was a trenchant critic of Mahatma Gandhi’s version of secularism. Many Congress leaders agreed with him on the issue, but they stayed silent out of deference to Gandhi. Mookerjee, eventually, got slotted as a communal leader.
In 1952, when they both were members of the first Lok Sabha, Mookerjee jokingly told Hiren Mukherjee, “Do you know Hiren, they have allotted accommodation to me at Tughlak Crescent, mind you, not on Tughlak Road. And, I don’t bat an eyelid, yet some people call me a communal Hindu.”
FROM STUDIES TO STATECRAFT
Mookerjee was born in 1901 into one of Calcutta’s most respected families. His father, Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, had served as vice chancellor of Calcutta University and as a judge of the Calcutta High Court. After completing his BA Honours in English from Presidency College, Mookerjee went on to pursue his master’s degree in Bengali language as he wanted to promote his mother tongue. In 1925, he left for England to study law and was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1927. Upon his return to India, he turned his focus to higher education and, in 1934, was appointed vice chancellor of Calcutta University. He played a leadership role at several other prominent institutions such as the Asiatic Society and the Indian Institute of Science.
Throughout his career as an educationist, Mookerjee had never been influenced by religious considerations. His family members told THE WEEK that Muslim academics from all over the country used to visit him at his south Calcutta residence. Some came seeking his support to maintain their schools, colleges and students. “Legendary Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam faced starvation at one point of time. It was Dr Mookerjee who saved his life,” said Anirban Ganguly, director of the Delhi-based Syama Prasad Mookerjee Foundation.
Mookerjee’s first brush with electoral politics came in 1929 when he was elected to the legislative assembly as a Congress candidate representing Calcutta University. He resigned a year later and got himself re-elected as an independent candidate after the Congress boycotted the assembly. Mookerjee became increasingly involved in politics after he was re-elected in the 1937 elections. He started associating himself with the Hindu Mahasabha, then headed by V.D. Savarkar.
The 1937 elections resulted in a coalition government of the Muslim League and the Krishak Praja Party, a breakaway faction of the League headed by prime minister A.K. Fazlul Haq. Two decisions of the Haq government pushed Mookerjee deeper into politics. He was opposed to the decision to reserve half of the seats in the Calcutta corporation council for Muslims. Although Muslims were in majority in the province, they constituted less than 30 per cent of the city’s population.
Mookerjee was even more appalled by the government’s plan to remove Calcutta University from the supervisory role over secondary education in Bengal and give it to a board nominated by the government. He felt that it was a deliberate attempt to communalise the education sector. Despite his opposition, the Haq government passed the corporation bill, reserving 46 of 93 seats in the corporation council for Muslims.
BATTLE WITH BOSE
After the corporation bill was passed, new elections were scheduled to be held in early 1940. Subhas Chandra Bose, who was forced to quit as Congress president at the 1939 Tripuri session of the All India Congress Committee because of his differences with Gandhi, saw the corporation elections as a platform to demonstrate his popular support. He had launched a pressure group called the Forward Bloc within the Congress; he proposed that the Bloc and the Mahasabha together fight the League in the corporation elections.
Bose and his elder brother Sarat, who then headed the Bengal Congress, discussed the alliance with Mookerjee. Although Mookerjee supported the proposal enthusiastically, negotiations broke down at the last minute. The Mahasabha fought alone and won 50 per cent of the seats. “We defeated Subhas’s force whom Gandhi followers had feared to challenge,” wrote Mookerjee in the book Leaves from a Diary.
Bose, however, allied with the League to keep Mookerjee at bay. Shocked, Mookerjee wrote: “The great liberator and leftist who regarded Gandhi, Jawaharlal and the rest as moderates, and branded them as ‘compromise-wallahs’, was not hesitant to install a League mayor and placate the League for his own purposes. He was out to wage a relentless war on the League ministry in one breath, in another he was a warm and dear ally of the League while it ruled the corporation. Could Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde do any better?”
Bose, too, was shaken. The electoral drubbing and the uncomfortable alliance led to his leaving Calcutta to focus on the Azad Hind and the Indian National Army. In 1941, he left his homeland for the last time, via Afghanistan.
Mookerjee, however, did not forgive Bose for what he felt was a betrayal of the Hindu cause. He accused Bose of being autocratic and even of committing financial irregularities, citing certain observations made by Congress leader B.C. Roy. “Dr Roy made an astounding statement that there have been serious financial irregularities on Subhas’s part,” wrote Mookerjee. “Monies received as purses presented to the president have mostly been appropriated by himself—while according to previous practice 75 per cent should have gone to provincial Congress funds and 25 per cent to the central fund.”
PORTRAIT OF A LEADER
Syama Prasad Mookerjee was opposed to partition in the beginning. But the 1946 Calcutta and Noakhali riots made him change his mind. His final mission was the total integration of Jammu and Kashmir
Harendra Coomer Mookerjee, a Christian, who was vice chairman of the constituent assembly and governor of West Bengal, was Syama Prasad Mookerjee's home tutor
His father, Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, was directly involved in the Bengal Renaissance in the 19th century
During the Bengal famine, Syama Prasad Mookerjee formed the Bengal Relief Committee and roped in the Hindu Mahasabha
He proposed the entry of Muslims into the Hindu Mahasabha. But, V.D. Savarkar refused, following which Mookerjee resigned from the Mahasabha
1901 Born on July 6
1921 Tops the BA English Honours batch in Presidency College (now university), Calcutta University
1923 Becomes a member of the senate of the English-dominated Calcutta University
1924 His father, Sir Asutosh, a member of the syndicate of Calcutta University, dies. He fills the vacancy on the syndicate
1925 Leaves for England to study law
1927 Called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn
1929 Elected to Bengal assembly as a Congress member from Calcutta University constituency
1930 Resigns from the Congress; re-elected as an independent legislator
1934 Becomes vice chancellor of Calcutta University, aged 33—a record in Asia till date
1935 Becomes member of the court and council of the Indian Institute of Science
1936 Becomes chairman of the Inter-University Board of India (now Association of Indian Universities)
1938 Conferred DLitt by Calcutta University
1941 Becomes finance minister of the Bengal province. Joins Hindu Mahasabha as working president
1943 Becomes opposition leader in Bengal assembly.
1942 Resigns ministership. Meets Sir Stafford Cripps to try for immediate transfer of power to an Indian government
1944 Health deteriorates. Confined to Calcutta. But still active in national politics
1945 Meets Jinnah to convince him against partition; had met Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah earlier, too, for the same reason. They are not convinced
1946 Demand for Pakistan picks up. Calcutta riots. Mookerjee delves into relief work for riot victims. Becomes member of the constituent assembly
1947 Opts out of constituent assembly, only to return after independence; becomes commerce and industry minister in first cabinet
1950 Resigns from cabinet, protesting Nehru-Liaquat pact
SETTING THE SYLLABUS RIGHT
The strong performance in the corporation election, however, established Mookerjee in Bengal politics. Soon, he became working president of the Mahasabha. In December 1941, when the Muslim League withdrew support to the Haq government, Mookerjee helped cobble together an alliance that propped up Haq and kept the League out. He became the finance minister in the new government. To this day, Mookerjee’s detractors cite this experiment to bolster the allegation that he got into bed with the Muslim League for the sake of power.
In March 1942, when the education bill was taken up by the cabinet for discussion, Mookerjee told governor John Herbert that it was being proposed because of political reasons. He said the secondary education board should not be in the hands of the proposed 18-member political committee, which would be dominated by Muslim bodies, but should be controlled by government officials. The government was forced to drop the bill because of Mookerjee’s opposition.
The bill was proposed again in 1944. By then, Mookerjee had resigned his ministership and Khwaja Nazimuddin of the League was the prime minister. He continued to oppose the bill and threatened that if it was passed, he would launch a movement demanding a separate secondary board for Hindus. After listening to Mookerjee’s arguments, governor Richard Casey asked the cabinet to consider whether the bill would lead to communal disturbances.
Nazimuddin thought the bill was important to checkmate Mookerjee and told the governor that his government had the support of the scheduled castes as well. “Dr Mookerjee would find it difficult to create any communal feeling. The teachers already have been attracted by the DA hike and would get substantial grants in improving schools,” said Nazimuddin, according to declassified cabinet documents. The governor, however, listened to Mookerjee’s objections and sent the bill to the director of public instruction. The government was ultimately forced to drop the bill.
SPARRING WITH SAVARKAR
Despite allegations that Mookerjee was a product of the Savarkar ideology, he was never a blind follower. Mookerjee had a mixed relationship with Savarkar. He was angry that Savarkar chose to ignore the Mahasabha’s decision to launch direct action if Britain failed to honour its promise of complete transfer of power. “I had joined Mahasabha in the full belief that I would not hesitate to fight the government at the right moment and thus pave the way ourselves towards national freedom,” wrote Mookerjee. He felt Savarkar had no desire to popularise the Mahasabha; he quit the party after Savarkar refused to initiate reform measures and give membership to liberal Muslims.
THE QUIT INDIA CONTROVERSY
Mookerjee’s critics maintain that he betrayed the Quit India movement by joining hands with the British. While he was initially opposed to the movement, declassified documents reveal that Mookerjee’s resignation from the provincial cabinet on November 20, 1942, was largely influenced by the brutal crackdown the British administration unleashed against Congress leaders.
In August 1942, governor Herbert informed the Bengal cabinet that viceroy Lord Linlithgow had declared the Congress an unlawful organisation and that there would be a stringent crackdown against the party. Haq said he agreed with the viceroy. Mookerjee was the only cabinet member to oppose the decision.
“It is essential to appeal both to people and British government through the viceroy. The attempt might fail but it would be a noble failure. And if the ministers fail, they might have to resign,” he said.
Mookerjee wanted to meet Gandhi in jail, but was denied permission. He wrote to the viceroy that the demand of self-rule by the Congress was a demand of all Indians. “What is regarded as the most unfortunate decision on the part of the British government was its refusal to negotiate with Mahatma Gandhi, even after he gave his emphatic assurance that the movement would not start until all avenues for an honourable settlement had been explored.”
In his letter, Mookerjee listed a series of conditions to be followed by the Indian national government if Britain granted independence to the country. One of the proposals was about the importance of guaranteeing minority rights. “There will be a treaty between Great Britain and India which will specially deal with minority rights,” he wrote. “In any case, any minority will have the right to refer any proposal regarding the future constitution to the arbitration of an international tribunal, in case it considers such a step to be necessary for the protection of its rights. The decision of such a tribunal will be binding on the Indian government and on the minority concerned.”
As the letter went unanswered, Mookerjee continued in office for only a few more months. A devastating cyclone hit Midnapore in early November, and Mookerjee felt that the relief and rescue efforts organised by the governor were inadequate. It was the last straw for him and he submitted his resignation on November 20.
FACE OFF WITH FAMINE
The dreadful famine, which devastated the Bengal province in 1943 and 1944, saw the death of more than 50 lakh people. Mookerjee had warned the cabinet in July 1942 that governor Herbert was misleading the viceroy about the food situation in Bengal. “Since the military is lifting huge amounts of resources, it would be required to send fresh statistics to the government of India,” he said, according to declassified files. Mookerjee strongly criticised the government’s decision to divert rice from Bengal to British troops in the Gulf and Ceylon.
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October 04, 2020