THOUGH Syama Prasad Mookerjee played no mean part in the making of modern Indian polity, not much has been written about it. His biography by Bal Raj Madhok is inadequate and based mainly on secondary sources. Anil Chander Banerjee makes use of some primary sources in his book, but it deals with a limited period in Mookerjee’s life: from 1937 to 1946. Chatterji’s book improves upon it, for it covers the entire span of his political career and makes full use of all the available printed and archival materials about him.
Chatterji begins by discussing the circumstances that brought Mookerjee into active politics. Though Congress emerged as the single largest party in the election of 1937 in Bengal, it declined to form a government with Krishak Praja Party. This brought the Muslim League in power with the same party, which changed the complexion of politics in the state. There was unprecedented and unwarranted spurt in Muslim representation in local and educational bodies, and there were riots in Dacca. Mookerjee worked hard to put together a new Progressive coalition to replace the League-dominated alliance. As finance minister in the new government, he worked out the financial adjustment between Bengal and India on a fair basis and criticised the British Denial Policy. When he found that Congress failed to protect Hindu interests and danced attendance on the Muslim League, he took active interest in the working of Hindu Mahasabha, which worked on “the ideal of Hindutva, patriotism, and age-old culture.
Chatterji states that Jinnah’s rise was mainly because of the unusual importance given to him by the Congress party. Even the Viceroy felt that he was taken too seriously by its members. We also learn how Gandhiji decided to consider seriously C Rajgopalachari’s idea about the division of the country. Although his talks with Jinnah broke down in 1943, even considering the idea of Partition was nothing less than a “great surrender.” The author also suggests that the policies of the Congress in Bengal changed the Hindu Muslim equation, and largely shaped the events that followed. This is also clear from the fact that Congress supported the idea of parity between Hindus and Muslims. It was largely because of Mookerjee’s efforts that India got parts of Bengal and Punjab within its fold.
When Mookerjee was invited to join the national government after the Independence of the country, he was reluctant to do so, because he felt that Congress’s acceptance of the Partition of the country was no less than “pitiable cowardice.” On the insistence of Savarkar, however, he joined the government and became minister of industry and supply. He recognised the role of private capital in Indian economy and opposed total nationalisation, as is reflected in the Industrial Policy Resolution of 1948, which made India a mixed economy. He was largely responsible for setting up the Chittaranjan Locomotive factory, Hindustan Aircraft, Sindri Fertilizer factory and Damodar Valley Corporation.
As a member of the cabinet, Mookerjee kept a steady watch on the fate of Hindus in East Pakistan. He was pained to see that within two years of the formation of the new country, 20 lakh Hindus were forced to leave their homes, more than 50,000 were slaughtered and scores of women were abducted and raped. Repeatedly, he drew the attention of his government to their plight, but to no effect.
Mookerjee felt that the need of the hour was to have a strong opposition party, a broad-based National Front, but did not find enough support for this. He did not trust the Communists because he considered them agents of Communist Russia and did not accept the narrow goals of the Socialist Party. So he went in search of parties from various parts of the country, and succeeded in putting together a people’s party-Jan Sangh. It was neither “communal nor narrow and stood for Indian cultural, geographical and historical unity.”
In 1953, Mookerjee supported the Praja Parishad party of Prem Nath Dogra of Jammu in his fight against Shiekh Abdullah. This took him to Kashmir, where he was arrested, and met with a sudden death.
Chatterji’s book is a well researched and carefully documented study on Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s work before and after the Independence of the country. Because of its special focus, it has not dealt with the controversy related to Mookerjee’s death, but that does in no way lessen its merit of being the most comprehensive work on his role in the evolution of Indian democratic system. It should be of interest to specialists and laymen alike.
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