Sunday, November 21, 2010

Not black as he’s painted

A file picture of Subrata Mukherjee and Siddhartha Shankar Ray in 1990

Trinamul Congress leader Subrata Mukherjee pays tribute to “Manuda”, his mentor Siddhartha Shankar Ray, claiming it is wrong to call him the chief minister of the black era. Ray died in the city on November 6

After (former chief minister) Prafulla Chandra Sen, Siddhartha Shankar Ray was the most honest man I have seen in my life. Manuda never accepted his fees as a barrister without a cheque. He used to pay his household employees also with cheques. I never saw him clearing a file just by signing it. Before signing he used to write a note with his observations on the matter.

In 1972, the All India Congress Committee’s plenary session was to be held in Calcutta, at Salt Lake (Indira Bhavan was constructed then for Indira Gandhi). Manuda was the chief minister. He had asked Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, Arun Moitra and me to manage the event. One day he called us and said: “I can do everything but not raise funds.”

But after 1977 (when the Left Front came to power), when Chhatra Parishad fell on difficult days, he used to donate the entire amount of his honorarium as MLA and leader of the Opposition to Chhatra Parishad.

If he had not been the chief minister, neither Priya da nor I could have become ministers at that young age. In 1971, when he recommended my nomination I was so green that I used to believe that Bidhan Sabha had been named after Bidhan Chandra Roy.

Manuda would admonish me like an elder brother, but forgive me. One day on my way to Writers’ Buildings, I saw a policeman slap a cart-puller and take money from him. I got down from my car and slapped the policeman. Manuda called me to his room. But later when we were meeting Indira Gandhi at Hyderabad House, Manuda in a casual mood narrated the incident to her. Mrs Gandhi only laughed and said: “This is Subrata.”

Manuda was so averse to corruption that when he heard that Rajani Dalui (a Congress leader) had been taking money and giving jobs to Chhatra Parishad workers, he immediately advised the police to arrest him.

I think crushing the Naxalite movement and setting up of the Wanchoo Commission to investigate corruption charges against some of his cabinet colleagues and the three-tier panchayat system, consisting of gram panchayat, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad, are achievements of Siddhartha Shankar Ray for which he should be remembered. The Naxalites had held the entire state and its peace-loving people to ransom. The government had to issue a slogan like “Live and let live” (banchoon ebang banchte din) in Bengali. Trams would carry these words on them. Since people were scared to go out after sundown, night shows were discontinued and noon shows were introduced instead.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray was committed to bringing back the rule of law by crushing the Naxalite movement. The Left Front claims the panchayat system as its achievement. But the three-tier system was Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s work. He could not hold the elections as he feared these would spark violence in rural Bengal.

It was a blunder not to hold the elections. After coming to power, the Left Front held the polls. The panchayat elections gave the CPM the opportunity to destroy the traditional mass base of the Congress in the rural belt.

It is wrong to call Manuda the chief minister of the black era in West Bengal. The Left Front government instituted 13 commissions against him but none could find him guilty.

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