‘The riches piled here, an insult to hungry thousands around’, wrote the celebrated artist after visiting the Hindu Mahasabha leader’s home in 1944
The artist Chittaprosad toured Bengal during the famine years of 1943-44 and wrote a series of articles, complete with drawings, on the suffering he was witness to. These were published in Peoples’ War, the newspaper of the Communist Party of India. One of the articles described the shocking situation in Jirat, the home village of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha (which had opposed the pro-Independence ‘Quit India’ movement) and future founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh – the precursor organisation of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
On July 5, 2016, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is organising a seminar on ‘Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Vision of India’ to coincide with his 115th birth anniversary. The chief guest is Mahesh Chandra Sharma, culture minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet.
The Wire is republishing extracts from Chittaprosad’s account of his visit to Jirat village in August 1944 for the glimpse it provides into Hindutva icon’s ‘vision of India’.
If there is any Bengali who has shot up to become a national figure in the last two years it is Dr Shyamaprosad Mukheriee. And why not? He is the son of Ashutosh Mukherjee, one of the builders of modern Bengal, who fought the governor to make Calcutta University an international centre of culture and learning. Shyamaprosad become a national figure overnight when he resigned in protest against Amery’s rule in Bengal in 1943. His was the strongest voice against the Bengal governor in the worst days of the Bengal famine. Lakhs of rupees poured into his Bengal Relief Committee from the four corners of India. Has this man who was given lakhs to save Bengal kept the light burning in his own village? This is what most people would like to know.
That is why I, a humble Bengali artist went, on a pilgrimage to Jirat in Hooghly district – the home of Ashutosh and Shyamaprosad. One day, early in June, I took a train to Kharnargachi (only 40 miles from Calcutta) and walked the last few miles to Jirat. On the way, I cut across six or seven villages in the Balagor area and what I saw was terrible. It is one whole year since the terrible river – the Behula – which cuts this area into two, flooded its banks and left almost all the villages caked in fertile mud from the river-bed. Huts were swamped and bodily blown off in the storm. Dhan-golas (paddy-stacks) were ruined in every village. Six villages were under water for 12 days and 7,000 villagers had become destitute. That was last year. Had last year’s curse become this year’s blessing? Had this rich, fertile soil from the river’s bed been dug up this year to make the area into a garden filled with tall paddy-stacks? Not at all! The peasants didn’t get a chance to dig up the soil. Soon after the flood-havoc, famine gripped all Bengal, and Balagor had to import rice at fantastic rates because the floods had destroyed her own rice. So the peasant used up the Rs. 10 Government loan he got for rebuilding his hut to buy a handful of rice. When the Rs. 10 went, there was nothing left even to buy rice with, let alone seeds and ploughs for the new crop.
The poor have to live on mangoes
So I did not see smiling paddy-fields, but barren earth, scorched in the sun, cracking up – dotted with tufts of grass and weeds. Same better-off peasants had planted jute here and there – but the monsoon came late this year, so the jute got scorched in the sun. They told me, too, how the late rains finished off the rabi crops of potatoes, onions and the like, grown for the Calcutta market. Mango trees are tall and ancient: the floods could not uproot them. That is why, 25% of the Balagor families are living on mangoes and mango stones only. A mango is eatable, but by itself it is not human food. That is why, wherever I went, I saw cholera, malaria, smallpox and skin- diseases playing havoc. In Rajapur village, for instance, only 6 out of 52 families are left and they too are suffering from malaria and food and cloth shortage. It was the same in every village to which I went. How much had Dr. Shyamaprosad done to help these villages next door to his own, I asked people right and left. But the plain fact is that I never heard a good word said about him in these villages.
They told me how the government had opened gruel kitchens in one village, where 400 people were fed daily for two months. How the government had given 15 annas to each family and a handful of chura per head in the same village. After this the Union Board also gave 14 pice to every man, 10 pice to every woman and 5 pice to every child. They spoke well of the Students’ Federation and the Muslim Students’ League, which gave cloth, 12 maunds of seeds, plenty of vegetables and a donation of Rs. 5 per family in some villages, just after the flood. The Communist Party, too, had twice given out a pao (1⁄4 seer) of rice and a pao of flour per head. The Dumurdaha Uttam Ashram distributed Rs. 2 per household and 8 seers of atta at controlled rates for three months. In short, every one had tried to help, except the biggest man and the strongest organisation in the district – Dr. Mukherjee and his Hindu Mahasabha. I put the question point-blank to a prominent villager in Srikanti village: what did the Bengal Relief Committee do for them? He had not heard of the Bengal Relief Committee or of Shyamaprosad…. but he understood at once when I mentioned Ashutosh. ‘No we got nothing from them’ was his answer. After that, I stopped talking about Shyamaprosad till I got to Jirat
But the closer I got to Jirat, the more I realised the plight of these villages next door to Jirat. In one word, I saw what happened to a village when its natural leader leaves it in the lurch. Shymaprosad does not help them and no one else is big enough in these parts to help them. So scoundrels and thieves steal whatever help, in the shape of food, cloth, medicine, trickles in from outside. For instance, everyone in Srikanti village was bitter about one such man (I refrain from giving his name), a real cut-throat who was in charge of the Union Board’s relief activity now. He doled out rice to his own favourites at the rate of 11⁄2 seers a week. But when the kisans of Kadamdanga went to him for aid, he made a neat offer to them: you can’t get rice from me for nothing, you know! Work without pay in my fields, I will sell you rice at controlled rates. The whole village raised a howl over this, but even then he was given 15 pieces of cloth by the Union Board, to be given to 83 families in three instalments. He went back to his old game: he sent the village folk back empty-handed, and made a present of the entire stock to his favourites.
One family becomes boss of them all
With these stories ringing in my ears. I stepped into Shyamaprosad’s own village at last and went straight to Ashutosh’s ancient mansion. A distant relative of Ashutosh’s, a certain Goswami, had named the old house ‘Ashutosh Memorial’. But I found a sad, decayed, broken-down memorial to the Royal Bengal Tiger,’ (the popular name by which Ashutosh was known), the proud builder of modern Bengal – who was a giant of a man and planned and built in a big way. I have made a sketch and you can see for yourself that the stately mansion with its strong columns of classic design is falling to pieces. Half of the wide terrace has collapsed—the bricks are coming loose in the other half and dropping off. Moss and wild weeds choke the windows-sills and have grown into the cracks which have split the columns from top to bottom.
In these ruins, Ashutosh’s sons have given a sop to those who hold their father’s memory sacred by putting up a ‘Ashutosh Sntriti Mandir (Ashutosh Charitable Dispensary). The sour-faced doctor in charge told me that he keeps the dispensary open three hours every morning and 30 to 40 patients come daily. But I went two mornings running and never found it open for longer than one hour. I looked for 30 to 40 patients, but found only 10 or 12—when hundreds are down with malaria all round. There was something unspeakably sad and uncanny about the whole place and it have me the creeps…
Paternal legacy not enough
Just, when the floods were knocking down every house in Balagor, the sons of Ashutosh took it into their heads to build a brand new mansion. Old Ashutosh’s house was apparently not good enough for them. I could not get over Shyamaprosad building a brand new mansion in the middle of the famine while his father’s house fell to pieces like every other house or hut for miles around. I went to see the hateful, vulgar, new garden-house. The house is known all over Balagor as the only new house built in the last year and as the only house with two dhan-golas stacked with paddy. Only the out-houses have been put up as yet. There are expensively-furnished sitting-rooms and guest-houses on either side of the gateway. There are strong iron gates and iron gratings on the windows to protect the richest spot in Balagor. There is a well-laid-out garden with a green-house.
The whole place looks like an oasis in a desert. Picknickers from the Mukherjee family motor down from Calcutta on holidays to bathe in the Ganges and drive away again. This vulgar new house of the sons is an insult to the stately old mansion of the father which is falling to pieces. The riches heaped here are an insult to the hungry thousands around! I fled from the house in disgust, but even then I did not hear the end of the story.
The talk of the Balagor villages is of a new haat (market) in Jirat – opened by Shyamaprosad with pomp and ceremony in one of his two visits home in the year of famine. All honest folk swear at this haat. Why? Because Balagor already had a haat of long-standing in Sijey village, not far from Jirat. One haat was enough. The point was to clean up profiteering in it and the village-folk a square deal. Instead of doing this Shyarmaprosad set up another haat at Jirat to meet on the Wednesday traditionally fixed for the Sijey haat. This was a clear move to break the Sijey haat – so almost every villager thought…
The reality of Mahasabha relief work
With this kind of profiteering going on in broad daylight in the haat opened by Shyamaprosad I didn’t expect to be impressed by the relief activity of the Hindu Mahasabha in Jirat village. But I went along all the same, because Jirat is the only village where people seem to have heard of relief work by Shyamaprosad. I found this relief work to be as much a racket as the haat and the ‘charitable dispensary’. Once a week, it seems, 28 seers of atta and 28 seers of rice used to be distributed by the Hindu Mahasabha through 4 relief centres. Apart from this, Shyamaprosad’s two brothers set up a shop and sold rice at half the market-price. But this did not help anyone because the market rate at that time was Rs. 40 per maund! That is why the poor peasants and fishermen of the village told me, ‘all charity was for the babus. Charity bought at Rs. 20 per maund was too expensive for all except a handful.’
This is roughly what I found out in Jirat, Shyamaprosad’s home village. I have been to many villages in Bengal which were homes of our great men – nowhere have I seen so much hatred and bitterness against the rich and specially against the biggest man of the village.
But on my way back, I found out something more for which I was not prepared. lt seems a whole generation of middle class youth have taken to brazen-faced lying to glorify their leader’, Dr. Shyamaposad Mukherjee! Everyone in Balagor and Jirat itself had told me that Shyamaprosad had not come to Balagor more than twice in the last two years – once during the famine, and again to open Jirat haat. And yet, a doctor I met in the neighbouring village of Kasalpur told me that Shyamaprosad was coming and going from Calcutta all the time – four times in the last two months. There is a man who loves his village! Birnalendu Goswami, who controlled rice and flour distribution at the Jirat relief centres, told me that he gave out relief only on Sundays. But a young high school student who was proud of the Hindu Mahasabha told me that 24 students worked daily at the relief centres to feed 100 to 150 mouths daily!
The rich have thus made themselves hateful in Jirat – and Shyamaprosad is hated and feared more than anybody else. But at the end of my visit, I heard a few words which showed that the ancient civilisation of Bengal and the spirit of Ashutosh still lives, in spite of Shyamaprosad and all his doings. It was evening and the boys and girls had gathered in noisy groups under the trees in front of the school-house which has been locked up. Somebody started cursing. At once, an old man barked: “Who is using bad language? Have you all become animals or what?” ‘How can they be human when even the school has closed down?’ answered somebody. Then they approached my guide, a kisan worker and said: ‘Give us a school-master, please! We shall starve and give him our own food. Kerosene costs ten annas a pint, but we shall pay for it somehow, For God’s sake! Let the school start again, if we don’t … civilisation will go out of Ashu’s village and our children will grow up hooligans.’ What an iron will to live and labour! They will live and fight as the Royal Bengal Tiger fought – in spite of Shyamaprosad!
The Wire would like to thank Ram Rahman and Sahmat for making the text of Chittaprosad’s article and the scans of his drawings available.