For the last two decades, in an era when coalitions have been the norm in Indian national politics, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who has died aged 92, the general secretary of the Communist party of India (Marxist) for 13 years till 2005, was a major power-broker. It was a role he described as one of the most trying of his life. In 1989 an anti-Congress party coalition came to power, backed by Surjeet’s CPI (M) – but after Congress’s Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, a Congress-led coalition took over until 1996. Surjeet’s CPI (M) then backed two fragile Janata Dal-dominated coalitions (1996-97).
CPI (M) leader was a Sikh, and combating communalism – whether by religion, language, caste or region – was central to his beliefs. The BJP led governing coalitions between 1998 and 1999, and from 1999 to 2004.
Surjeet backed the current Congress coalition which came to power in 2004. Indeed, in the vote of confidence debate in the Indian parliament last month on the US-India nuclear deal, Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, thanked him for his support in defeating the BJP.
While Surjeet enjoyed significant influence during his years as party leader, unsurprisingly he described the period as “one of the most trying” of his life. In 1996, there was indeed a moment when the CPI(M) might have supplied the prime minister at the head of the United Front coalition: Basu – at the time chief minister of West Bengal – was the consensus candidate, but the party’s politburo decided not to participate in the government. Basu later described it as a “historic blunder”. Surjeet had voted in favour of Basu.
Born in a small peasant family in Rupowal, a village in eastern Punjab, Harkishan Singh cut his political teeth in a charged atmosphere, when the region was the epicentre of anti-colonial national struggle. Inspired by the revolutionary independence fighter Bhagat Singh, hanged in 1931, Surjeet was imprisoned the following for hoisting the Indian tricolour at the district courts in Hoshiarpur on the anniversary of the execution. He soon came into contact with senior political prisoners and two years after his release, in 1936, joined the CPI.
Surjeet started actively organising small landholders around economic issues like debt and digging irrigation canals. Writing patriotic poetry and working for Punjabi political papers, he acquired the nom de plume Surjeet – conqueror of the gods.
With the outbreak of the second world war, the CPI, following the Moscow line (Stalin had recently concluded his pact with Hitler) denounced the war as imperialist. Leading CPI members were rounded up by the British, including Surjeet, who had gone underground, and detained in Deoli detention camp, Rajasthan. For Surjeet it proved to be an opportunity to study Marxism further.
All were released in 1942, and gave their unqualified support to the British as a way of waging the people’s war. The Ghadr-Kirti party, the rural populist organisation led the firebrand Teja Singh Swatantar, Surjeet’s main rival, merged with the CPI.
Following the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the CPI’s line changed into support for what had now become the “people’s war” and CPI leaders, including Surjeet, were released in 1942. By 1944 Surjeet was propounding his own thesis for a Sikh homeland on the model of the Pakistan being proposed by the Muslim League. But Surjeet’s idea was firmly quashed by Rajani Palme Dutt, the Communist party of Great Britain’s chief ideologue, who for many years supervised the CPI on behalf of Stalin’s Comintern.
In 1952, at the age of 36, Surjeet was elected general secretary of the Punjab section of the CPI, and two years later was elected to the Punjab legislative assembly and again in 1967. He was a member of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament, from 1978 to 1982.
But in the early 1960s the Sino-Soviet split in global communism triggered a crisis in the CPI. This was exacerbated in 1962 by the six-week Sino-Indian war. Many CPI leaders, including Surjeet, backed China and were imprisoned. In 1964, along with eight other communist stalwarts, he walked out of the CPI and formed the CPI (Marxist) causing a vertical division across the country in the trade unions and other mass organisations. The CPI(M) kept the Stalinist rhetoric, but in practice has been pragmatic. Since 1977 is has led the Left Front in West Bengal, making it the world’s longest-running democratically elected communist government, and has invited multinationals to invest in the other two states where it leads the governments, Tripura and Kerala.
There was further division in the late 1960s, when Maoist fundamentalists
formed the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) after a tribal peasants’ agitation in Naxalbari in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal was ruthlessly crushed by the CPI(M)-led government in the state capital of Kolkata. Nevertheless, in terms of electability, Indo-communism, in whose development Surjeet has had a significant hand, has achieved what Euro-communism could not.
A key issue for Surjeet was keeping the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) out of office. The
After the split in the party, when the main funding from both the Soviet
and Chinese communist parties had dried up due to the CPI(M)’s independent
ideological stance, Surjeet could rely on support from emigrant British and North America Sikh communities.
From the mid-1960s Surjeet visited Britain at least twice a year. In 1966 the CPI(M)-backed Association of Indian Communists was set up in London. He personally supervised its annual elections and those of the Indian Workers Association (Great Britain).
It was as a boy in the early 1960s that I first met Surjeet. As a friend of my father he was a regular visitor to our house in Nakodar in the Punjab. Affable and caring, he never lost his composure even in heated debate: he was a splendid orator in both Punjabi and English.
Three years ago he visited Lahore for the first time after Partition and met with his old Muslim comrades including CR Aslam and Tahira Mazhar Ali. He told Aslam that he had left the keys to the Party headquarters in Fazal Husain building McLeod Road with him in 1947 and now came to Lahore to take them back!
He leaves a party with a national membership of about half a million and 43
seats in a 545-strong parliament; it is the next largest after Congress (145 seats) and the BJP (138), while the Communist Party of India (CPI) has 10. Even after the total reversal in the CPI(M)’s policy towards the Soviet-supporting Congress party, which was one of the causes of the split with the CPI back in 1964, Surjeet was considered the main obstacle to the CPI(M) reuniting with the CPI and his passing may hasten reunification.
He is survived by his wife and two sons and a daughter.
[An edited version of this obituary was published in The Guardian 6 August 2008.