An amazing portrait of India

An autobiography, Subrata Banerjee’s low-key book captures, and reflects, India’s story from late 1870s to 2016

By   |  MR Narayan Swamy  |  Published: 22nd Mar 2020  12:50 amUpdated: 21st Mar 2020  10:35 pm

This is an extraordinary autobiography by an amazing Indian who is largely unknown. He played a role in the country’s Independence struggle, including in the Left movement, and beyond. But for Subrata Banerjee’s low-key personality and the lack of marketing, this book could have been a hit. In any case, everyone interested in India’s well-being, particularly in today’s troubled times, must read this – to know the nation’s past and have an understanding of its future.

Although an autobiography, this is also India’s story spanning more than 130 years, from the late 1870s to 2016. As one who was born in Dhaka and educated in Kolkata where he embraced Marxism, eventually joining the CPI, Banerjee has a lot to say. His bias, if any, is only to the truth.

From seeing the Independence struggle and the revolutionary movement from close quarters, Banerjee worked for the British Indian Army on the Eastern front during World War II, suffered imprisonment, had a diplomatic stint in newly free Bangladesh and finally returned to journalism, his first love. In the process, he suffered many trials. He writes frankly about men and events, including many of the who’s who in politics.

The autobiography also throws light on why the CPI, one of India’s oldest political parties, is limping now.Mahatma Gandhi, Banerjee says, was both a strategist and a wily politician. A strategist because he would embark on a new agitation when he realised that his present programme was failing, all the time to keep the masses knit together.

But when the crunch came, he was selfish too, one who could not stomach the election of Subhas Chandra Bose as the Congress president and did everything he could to ensure that Bose had no option but to walk out. Closer to Independence, Mahatma Gandhi even criticised Aruna Asaf Ali for supporting the Naval ratings who had rebelled against the British – a development that many believe forced London to quit India earlier than schedule.

The author gives full marks to PC Joshi, the then CPI General Secretary, for drawing the best intellectuals from every field into the party and to engage their talents for the country. Sadly, this fine leader was pulled down by his so-called “radical” foes, delivering a huge, although not the first, big kick to the CPI. He faults the CPI for ignoring critical moments in history and failing to gauge the revolutionary potential of the situation. The CPI did play a major role in stopping communal riots during 1946-47 but Gandhi understood the people much better than the dogmatic Communists.

What he saw in Burma (now Myanmar) during WW II deeply distressed him. Banerjee was attached to the Army’s Information Department. While the Indian troops did much of the fighting against the Japanese, they were ill-treated by their British bosses. Indian soldiers were generally given the most difficult tasks but the least protection. Even their food was of poor quality. Sadly, Indian national leaders never took up their cause.

In February 1942, the British fled Southeast Asia, abandoning more than 60,000 Indian officers and men in Singapore and parts of Malaysia and Burma. The Japanese put them in concentration camps. At the same time, Indian contractors and landlords in Burma looked down upon its people, often sleeping with the local women and deserting them if they became pregnant. This and the later, at times, forcible collection of money for the Indian National Army (INA) led to a lot of anger against the Indians.

But nothing appalled Banerjee more than the sadistic conduct of the Japanese Army. They were extremely cruel and had no sense of justice and fair play. When their propaganda vis-à-vis the captured Indians failed, torture followed. Half-starved soldiers were made to slave away. If they didn’t, they were whipped. The captured Tamil coolies suffered a far worse fate; they died like flies. If they were too weak to work, their heads were simply chopped off.

It was only when Subhas Bose reached Singapore that the Indian troops got a new and better deal. Indian Communists had called Bose a “fascist collaborator”; but Banerjee is clear that he was an anti-imperialist to the core. When victory came, there were no Indian soldiers in the guard of honour to Lord Mountbatten in Southeast Asia though 75 per cent of those who won the war in Burma were Indians.

Post WW II, unrest erupted against the French in Vietnam, and Banerjee was again an eyewitness. The French, including civilians, behaved every inch like cruel colonialists. French troops poured red ants down the shirts of the poor Vietnamese prisoners whose hands were tied. The Vietnamese civil disobedience went beyond what Gandhi had implemented in India; all the Vietnamese shops would be open but nothing was sold to the French! Vietnamese women guerrillas who targetted British, French and Japanese soldiers did not spare the Indian troops now sent to Vietnam.

Indian soldiers, from poor peasant families, could not understand why they had to fight against the locals, that too in the company of the Japanese whom they hated. An Indian soldier said prophetically: “You wait and see Sahib, the Vietnamese will win in the end.”
Post-Independence, amid the CPI’s political somersaults, Banerjee struggled to get a job as the Nehru government refused to give work to Communists. Like his compatriots, Banerjee was first shattered by revelations of Stalin’s crimes and the later Chinese aggression against India.

When Nehru died in 1964, Banerjee concluded that the Communists should have shown greater understanding of the Prime Minister and his socialist policies.Banerjee returned to journalism, saw communal riots from close quarters, and witnessed (as an Indian diplomat) how Bangladesh turned against India soon after Independence.

He laments that the Communists, at a later period, failed to take head on those intending to raze the Babri Masjid, an epoch-making event whose reverberations are being felt even today.
Banerjee did not live to see this book come out. After the manuscript was found following his death, his daughter edited it. Indeed, a great book.

Title: Fragments of Time: Memoirs of a Romantic Revolutionary
Author: Subrata Banerjee
Publisher: Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), Chandigarh
Pages: 494
Price: Rs 875

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