OPINION | Somnath Chatterjee: A Genuine Bhadralok Representing Best Face of Communism Like True Vedantist
Before I met him, I had scant regard for all leftist intellectuals whom I considered more cerebral than humane. But my first meeting quelled all my apprehensions.
Seen in this picture is Somnath Chatterjee and his long-time physician Lt Gen BNBM Prasad (right).
When I learnt about the untimely demise of Shri Somnath Chatterjee, former Honourable Speaker of Lok Sabha, it was bit of a rude shock to me. He was a fighter who never gave up easily. He had fought all his political battles brilliantly with utmost dignity and fairness and emerged victorious each time.
Undaunted by advancing age and chronic ailments, he was active till recently. It was a privilege to watch him on TV that was reminiscent of his tenure as a Speaker of Lok Sabha for his sharp, crisp and witty comments conveyed in a firm and baritone voice.
He was an intellectual giant and a great human being, who remained so till the very end. He was not afraid of death and desired it, when the time is ripe, so that he does not remain a burden to others.
In many ways, I was extremely fortunate to be associated with Shri Somnath Chatterjee.
When he was a Lok Sabha Speaker, he consulted me while I was heading the Pulmonary Medicine Department at prestigious Army Hospital (R&R), New Delhi, for his respiratory problem. What impressed him the most was my approach and honest opinion about his illness. From that time onwards, he has always consulted me, be it his own health issues or that of his family members. I had many opportunities to treat him and also offer my opinion, which he valued the most even when he was away in Kolkata and attended by the best of doctors.
I was his most honoured and privileged guest in all our meetings, some at short notice, be it in his office or in his house while was a Speaker. I was also his special guest in family functions or at parliament guest lectures. Even after his retirement from public life in 2009, whenever he learnt that I am in Kolkata, he used to ensure that I meet him at his home. In all my meetings with him, I was touched by his warmth and affection. He was gracious, very humble and treated me with utmost respect and honour. He used to speak gloriously about me to his family members and others.
Even at this hour of grief, I was not at all surprised when his son Mr Pratap Chatterjee thanked me and conveyed to me that his family will never forget my help. Mr Somnath Chatterjee’s grandson Shashwata Chatterjee sent me a message stating that his grandfather was extremely fond of me, and that he always spoke glowingly about me.
What was remarkable about Mr Somnath Chatterjee was that despite his advancing age he took me out for dinner with family members and made it a point to give some gifts during many of these visits. Among many presents that he gave it to me, the one I value the most was a suite piece that I got especially stitched for the occasion to receive prestigious Fellow of Royal College of Physicians (FRCP) from the world renowned Royal College of Physicians London on 25 July 2018, which incidentally was his birthday. It was very sad that on the same day his son Shri Pratap Chatterjee contacted me to inform that his father was hospitalised in Kolkata.
Immediately, I got in touch with his doctors and family members and tried my best to render my bit for aiding his recovery. I hope and prayed that he will recover. But death had the last laugh. Unfortunately, my dream to meet him wearing the suit that he presented me along with the photo of me receiving FRCP remained unfulfilled.
Before I met him, I had scant regard for all leftist intellectuals whom I considered more cerebral than humane. But my first meeting quelled all my apprehensions as I found in him a genuine Bhadralok who represented the best human face of Communism like a true vedantist.
I was never in doubt about his intellectual honesty and courage of conviction in choosing a path of hardship for serving the poor and down trodden.
Born in an aristocratic family on 25 July 1929 at Tezpur, he had everything at his command: money, lineage and foreign education. His father late NC Chatterjee was a legal luminary and a Supreme Court judge who once was also the President of Hindu Maha Sabha. Contrary to his father’s ideology, his equally illustrious son chose the path of Communism and followed it in letter and spirit under the tremendous influence of legendary late Jyoti Basu, former CM of West Bengal.
Mr Somnath Chatterjee, on his own merit, served as the Member of Parliament 10 times reaching the high point of becoming a Speaker in 2004 and remaining so till 2009.
As I knew, he was not an ordinary politician. He was honest to the core, a great human being and champion of downtrodden. He used to tell me on about the sorry state of present day politics with criminal elements having the last word. As a politician he never spent any extra money for gaining votes and all his victories in elections bear testimony to his popularity among masses. The only time he lost an election was against Mamata Banerjee in Jadhavpur constituency.
His Lok Sabha tenure was marked by his unique oratory and debating skills and profound knowledge of constitution. He was respected by one and all cutting across party lines and therefore it was not surprising that he was the best parliamentarian when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM.
During his stint as Lok Sabha Speaker, he brought transparency in its functioning and conducted all proceedings with utmost dignity, fairness and discipline like a true Head Master. He had many distinctions to his credit, including live telecast of Lok Sabha proceedings and starting Parliament Library.
He was a perfect band master who brought rhythm and melody from chaotic and harsh players in the parliament, the temple of democracy. He was a colossus in the field of legislation and never bowed to judiciary as he strongly believed that Judiciary should not cross Lakshman Rekha to interfere with legislative function of the Parliament. He maintained the dignity of chair all the time and did not come under the pressure of his party, CPI(M), during the discussion on US Nuclear Treaty in Lok Sabha. In the bargain, his party sacked him, yet he never compromised his principles.
Even after his retirement he never sought lucrative appointments nor went back to his party that he was associated with for almost five decades. All along his illustrious career, he maintained the high values of probity and uprightness in public life. He thought about the nation and its people all the time. He was distressed by the poor infrastructure especially education and health in many parts of the country hampering growth and development of masses.
In his humble way he nurtured his own constituency in Bholpur by running dispensaries and Degree College for the poor. He was closely associated with Shantiniketan and played a pivotal role in shaping it to realise dreams of its founder Shri Rabindranath Tagore.
Mr Somnath Chatterjee was a family man and loved and cared for all his family members immensely. He was heart broken when he lost his eldest daughter recently and was in tears when he conveyed the tragic news to me. When he was ill, his entire family members, including his grandchildren some of whom have settled abroad, were with him and showered their deep affection upon him to keep him in good humour. His passing away is a loss not only to his family but also to millions of his well-wishers as he was a Bhishma among parliamentarians, a stalwart of Communism (Marxist) and above all a great human being. He was indeed a giant and legend.
India has lost one of her great sons. In this hour of grief I pray God to give strength to his beloved wife Mrs Renu Chatterjee and all his family members to bear this immense loss. May God rest his soul in eternal bliss.
(Lt Gen BNBM Prasad retired as Director General of Armed Forces Hospital Services. Views are personal.)
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