Remembering Comrade Dang
– Purushottam Agrawal
Year 1982. It was a second class compartment of a Jabalpur bound train. I, along with my friend Nilanjan Mukhopadhayay, was going to Jabalpur to participate in an event against communal politics organized by IPTA. One of our fellow travelers was a quiet, almost withdrawn old gentleman, his constant reading interspersed by bouts of reflectively looking out of the window. We took him to be a retired teacher, heading home.
It was only at Jabalpur Railway station that we realized that this unassuming, quiet gentleman was comrade Satyapal Dang – the very famous and universally respected leader of the CPI. It was one of those rare occasions upon which I cursed myself for not sharing the typical Indian tendency of striking friendship and indulging in gup-shup with fellow-passengers. But for the total absence of this tendency in Nilanjan and me, we might have used the many hours of the journey from Delhi to Jabalpur in talking with the man whose articles we used to read with deep interest.
Comrade Dang was there as the chief guest of IPTA’s event. We had long arguments – both during the sessions and afterwards. Of course, he was articulating the party-line regarding the then on-going Akali agitation in Punjab -“we must look at the ‘content’ of the agitation, i.e. the demands of the farmers, not it’s ‘form’ i.e. the utterly communal idiom and orientation”
It was difficult to agree with this dialectics, and we did not. But, comrade Dang, far from being dismissive of our concerns and suspicious of our intentions, was open to our criticisms and eager to engage on the issue.
After this meeting, we continued to receive his support and blessings in our anti-communalism activities. When, in 1983, we brought out the first issue of our inter-disciplinary journal ‘Jigyasa’, he was one of its active supporters, helping us to reach contributors and finding subscribers. The next face to face meeting took place in 1987 when the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan (SVA) invited him along with Gurusharan Singh to deliver the key-note at its founding conference. The founding of the SVA was an outcome of the agony and activism of many friends like Dilip Simeon, Bhagwan Josh and others who, besides intervening to help the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and other communal incidents, were also trying to understand the true nature and implications of communal mobilizations of all hues. Comrade Dang’s address to this conference was thought-provoking, inspiring and moving. The 1984 and 1987 (Maliana) massacres had already taken place, the issue of communal mobilization had traversed way beyond the comfortable dialectic of ‘form’ and ‘content’. The country was faced with mobilizations exhibiting fascistic characteristics. Who but comrade Dang was better placed to realize this truth first hand? He heartily welcomed the founding of the SVA and its agenda of understanding the nature of ‘Indian variant of fascism’ and fighting the menace without bothering about political correctness of this or that type; without giving any concession to either the majority or the minority versions of the fascistic communal mobilization.
Comrade Dang promised all help and co-operation to us, and stood by his promise when three SVA activists – Dilip Simeon, Jugnu Ramaswami and I decided to visit Punjab in 1988. It was the period of renewed, intense militancy and we wanted to have a first-hand, direct idea of the situation.
The CPI office in Amritsar served as our base courtesy Comrade Dang. It was also his virtual residence. Moving from our ‘base-camp’ we visited many villages and towns. We went to Damdami Taksal and tried to understand the viewpoint of the Kharkus, i.e. militants themselves. We realized the trauma of a militancy ridden society. One can never forget the visit to village Vein-Puin, where a local comrade was our host. The seven year old daughter of this farmer could tell a Mauser pistol form a revolver. While the home-maker cooked food, her elder daughter stood guard with a gun in hand. When we went to the fields to answer the call of nature, the comrade Sardarji himself guarded us with gun in hand!
After all, comrades of all hues were on top of the hit-lists of the militants. It was a young member of the CPM in Amritsar who made the tongue in cheek remark- “we have been talking of Left unity for so many years; here in Punjab it has been already realized, and the credit goes to Kharkus– who treat all communists as enemy number one- without bothering about the differences in the party programs of CPI, CPM and CPI (M.L).”
This observation was confirmed by a top BJP leader as well, who was frank enough to admit, “Neither we, nor the Congress, but only the Communists are really fighting back against the militants.” The experience of those days deserves a much more extensive treatment, but here I just wish to recall the universal respect and admiration comrade Dang enjoyed not only throughout the political spectrum but also in all the sections of society. It just took one phone-call from him to make leaders of the Congress and the BJP, and of course Leftists of all types; – academicians, journalists, social workers, factory workers and farmers, open their doors to guests of ‘Kamredji’. Notwithstanding sharp ideological differences, to a senior woman leader of the BJP, now part of the national leadership of that party, Dang Saheb was nothing less than the elder brother, Bhraji. In those bleak, militancy-ridden times, comrade Dang’s dignified and courageous presence was a beacon of hope and inspiration to all.
I saw him last in 2006 when he had come to Meerut on a private visit. This time, my friend of JNU days, Akshaya Bakaya was with me. Age had taken its toll on the body of the old comrade, but his mind was as alert as ever. He was in an introspective mood, and was trying very sincerely to sound optimistic about the future and to assess the past and present of the Left movement in India and the world. He sounded very uncomfortable with the effective marginalization of the category of ‘class’ even amongst Leftist circles amidst their over-indulgence with the politics of social identities and castes.
Comrade Dang was a lamentably rare exemplar of the idea of a Communist – who while following the party-line honestly, showed intellectual competence and moral courage to think differently as well.