Don’t you read the newspapers, in this country fascism will not pass. All right-thinking people here are against fascism. A minister in West Bengal, famous for his plain speaking, has gone to the length of confirming that, in order to save the country from fascism, he is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice: he will himself turn into a full-fledged fascist – and suppress, by well-known methods, those other fascists who dare denigrate the authorities: fascism shall not pass.
Fascism shall not pass, newspapers every day carry reports of meetings and conventions held in many parts of the country where the vanguards of democracy take stock of the situation, and warn the fascists: this far and no further. The collective conscience of our countrymen has been roused, fascism will not make any further advance. Different sections and groups are being mobilised: teachers, students, the working class, the peasantry, scientists, artisans, poets, you name them, they are all against fascism. Recently, in the capital, the lawyers chipped in. A boisterous gathering of the members of the legal profession declared themselves forever against fascism and for democracy and progress. The Prime Minister addressed them.
There were other joiners, including a former Chief Justice of the country, who is currently Chairman of the Law Commission, and a number of incumbent judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court at Delhi. Queue up, whoever is not for us is against us, whoever is not with us is a fascist. Fascism shall not pass. At the rate things are progressing, wait a while, very soon, progressive elements amongst the police personnel too will be organising a convention against fascism.
Baburam Ghosh Road is a little alleyway down in Tollygunge on the southern fringes of Calcutta.
It is indistinguishable from any other dirty lane in the city: slums, choked drains, stench of human and animal excreta, worn-out roads, non-existent pavements, rows and rows of dilapidated pucca houses crowding upon one another. Each such house is perhaps cut up into several dingy flats, dark, bereft of ventilation, lacking in basic sanitation facilities, an apology of an inner courtyard shared between a dozen families, perennially infested by termites and cockroaches.
A handkerchief pressed against your nose, visit such an area if you want to know what the scourge of inflation has done to that ramshackle, moveable line of poverty economists talk of. The species of the lower middle class residing in these houses are fighting a losing battle: as prices rise, but their wages are kept frozen by the kindly and sagacious government, they are, inch by inch, pushed toward malnutrition and starvation. It is their kismet, they have to put up with this phenomenon of progressive immiserisation. In the Sixties, heads of such households, mostly clerks in government or mercantile firms, were often foolhardy enough to join the trade union movement and fight for higher wages.
Now, since fascism shall not pass, they have been mostly silenced by the government’s hired goons: they have also been told by learned people that any agitation on their part will be dirty “economism”. For, after all, they – they too – belong to the top two per cent of the privileged sections of this country’s population.
After such knowledge, there could be no forgiveness for any stirring of discontent in the gloomy slum-houses on Baburam Ghosh Road. But, it is a funny business, life sprouts, despite the economists, even on Baburam Ghosh Road.
Sadananda Roy Chowdhury, ancestry East Bengal, scion of a landowning family, current assets reduced to just about the double-barrelled surname which testifies to the feudal lineage, is a tenant in one of these dingy, dark, claustrophobic tenements. Fiftyish, a clerk in the office of the Accountant General, West Bengal, he long ago learned to chop and prune his ambitions. A clerk is a clerk, he must not dream, he must meekly return home every evening, he must learn to wither away.
Yet life sprouts. Sadananda Roy Chowdhury had a small family, wife, two teenage sons, Pradip and Prabir. They were bright, alert, sprightly children: malnutrition, and the general frustration of Bengali lower middle class existence, could not restrain them. Life sprouted. The boys grew up, did well in the examinations, were loved by the neighbours.
The boys grew up. The elder one, Pradip, secured, against hard competition, admission to the Bengal Engineering College at Sibpore. Prabir, the younger brother, did even better; on the basis of his performance in the higher secondary examination, he obtained a scholarship and a seat in the prestigious Presidency College. Sadananda and his wife had reason to feel grateful at the way things were turning out. A clerk must learn to trim his dreams: even so, both the sons were up-and-coming, and somehow life began to promise a radiant glow beyond what the petty sky of Baburam Ghosh Road could offer.
Right here, a kink developed. Your conscience is a product of your environment. Pradip and Prabir, bright, alert, meritorious, were not capable of disowning their milieu. Young people are not capable of flouting their passion. Social realities intervened, and the rest of the tale has a familiar ring; so much so that there is a danger of its being treated as part of a worn-out cliche.
To cut a long story short, their academic pursuits were rudely interrupted, a little more than three years ago both the brothers were picked up by the police.
Thus ended the curtailed dream of Sadananda Roy Chowdhury, upper division clerk in the office of AG , West Bengal. This did not, however, set him and his family apart. You soon have to give up the count, for, in case you go round run-down neighbourhoods and colonies in Calcutta and West Bengal’s smaller towns, there must be thousands of middle class parents like Sadananda Roy Chowdhury and his wife, whose dreams have similarly been scuttled in mid-course. And, as our academic economists would say, there is a certain poetic justice in this; these wretched clerks, who conjure up rosy and prosperous careers for their offspring, are in fact indulging in a variant of “economism”, do not waste any pity on them, let history take its own course.
Yes, it is important to be objective, the instance of Pradip and Prabir was not sui generis, thousands and thousands of college-going young men have, during the past five years, been picked up by the police and detained without trial; otherwise the nation would not have been safe for democracy. Few amongst these young people have had charges pressed against them in open courts. So it was with Sadananda’s two children.
In their case, the sequel was nonetheless slightly different, which is why this footnote becomes relevant, even if a wee bit tangentially. The elder brother, Pradip, died mysteriously in police custody shortly after he was arrested. He was being interrogated, for days on end, by the Special Branch of the state police; suddenly he passed away, reportedly because of heavy internal haemorrhage. Ask no questions of our patriotic police and you will be told no lies.
Going by the gossip – no doubt subversive – as part of the democratic process of interrogation, a solid wooden plank was placed across his body, and hefty specimens belonging to the Special Branch took their turn to mount the plank and dance a tarantula. They mounted for roughly half a dozen occasions, each occasion stretching to five minutes or nearabouts. The police could have danced all night, but it was not necessary. Pradip’s ribs as well as internal organs, according to the same gossip, were smashed to smithereens; he died. Some dances can be fatal.
Let bygones be bygones, Pradip Roy Chowdhury died accidentally while in the care of our progressive, anti-fascist government, but Sadananda and his wife had still that other child left, Prabir, the scholar at the Presidency College, who, after his arrest, had been lodged in the Presidency Jail, and of course there was no question of his ever being produced before a judge. A few weeks ago, along with some other prisoners, he was transferred to the jail in Howrah.
And then it was the early morning of Saturday, May 3, the sun had yet to rise, the night soil was still piling up on Baburam Ghosh Road, there was a soft summer breeze, originating in the Bay of Bengal, wafting along the Hooghly river, some shots were fired inside the Howrah jail. Ask no questions, otherwise you will be deemed a fascist. The government story is as invariant as ever; some of the “extremist” prisoners had attacked the security guards and were trying to escape; the guards, in self-defence, were compelled to open fire; five of the prisoners were killed, including Prabir Roy Chowdhury.
He was supposedly shot by the guards while trying to escape, but, check with those who have seen his body, there were bullet wounds visible on Prabir’s temple, forehead, windpipe and stomach. And the body was swollen all over, indicating the likelihood of blows from regulation lathis having descended upon it with a fearsome intensity.
Whether the lathis came down first or were preceded by the shots from a revolver is a riddle one may now try to solve at leisure. The solution, however, will have little operational significance: either way, Prabir is dead.
But look at the brighter side of it. For Sadananda Roy Chowdhury and his wife, the ordeal is over, they will not have to worry about their children any more, both their sons are dead, having been most efficiently disposed of by the patriotic, high-minded government. The lord giveth, and the government of the land taketh away, in a most sensible division of responsibilities. If you have children, children around whom you weave your dreams, children who are the cynosure of your eyes, children who are polite and brilliant and sensitive, just leave them in the safe custody of your law-abiding, law-enforcing, anti-fascist government, you will not see them any more, peace will descend upon earth.
Fascism shall not pass.
Each day the news filters in of yet another convention of the conscientious ones against fascism. The Chairman of the National Law Commission, Justices of the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court, they have stood up and been counted: they are against fascism, fascism shall not pass. But suppose Sadananda Roy Chowdhury’s distraught wife takes a crowded train to the nation’s capital, and, giving the slip to the guards and sentries, somehow manages to find her way to the chambers of these legal luminaries, who are against fascism. Suppose she lowers herself into a chair, and silently stares at them across the table. Would they – the guardians and upholders of the rule of law in this country – would they be able to return her stare and, composure writ large on their faces, assure her that, never mind her two sons, fascism shall not pass? Would they?This piece was written in 1975.
Excerpted with permission from Calcutta Diary, Ashok Mitra, published by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.