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Ashok Mitra (1928-2018) - selected tributes

6 May 2018

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[A select collection of tributes to Dr Ashok Mitra who passed away in Calcutta on 1st of may 2018]

The Telegraph, May 07, 2018

Always committed: A tribute to Ashok Mitra

Gopalkrishna Gandhi

"Just pick up the phone and ring him," V.K. Ramachandran, who was then heading West Bengal’s land board, advised me. I had asked my friend of long years how I could go about meeting the iconic Ashok Mitra, not just because he had been Jyoti Basu’s finance minister for a decade and before that chief economic adviser in Indira Gandhi’s government, but because he was a social philosopher, his interests going far beyond finance, trade and wages to theatre, cinema, music, art, literature and the human condition.

This was in early 2005, not long after I had started to work in Calcutta. I did exactly as Ram advised. Ashokbabu’s wife, Gouridi, as we came to know and call her, took the call. "Oh... just a minute," she said when I introduced myself and asked if I could speak to Ashok babu.

A shrill and inquisitive voice came on the line. "Yes?" I introduced myself again and asked if my wife and I could visit. A date and time were un-fussily settled and we went to their flat in Alipore. The front door opened to a horseshoe shaped sitting arrangement that extended to a very small, very cosy dining area. We were accompanied by the aide-de-camp to the governor whom Ashokbabu welcomed with a handshake, saying: "Please make yourself comfortable in this sitting room. The small study where I am taking our guests is too small to hold all of us. Would you care for some tea?" Major Surinder Kharb, I could see, was glad to be addressed - regarded - as a person, not a robot in olive greens. Ashokbabu and Gouridi then showed us into the compact little study which had four walls lined with books from floor level to almost the ceiling. All of them showed age and handling. More importantly, they bespoke belonging. They sat on those shelves, with a few small framed photographs of family and friends - and one of Lenin - as memories do in our minds, quietly but integrally. This study was the centre of Ashokbabu’s universe, the place where his visitors and Gouridi’s could enter as one may enter a person’s confidence, trust.

As tea with singaras and gulab jamuns to embellish the steaming brew arrived, Ashokbabu asked: "How do you find life in Raj Bhavan?" I said it was as expected, with many pleasant surprises such as an excellent pile of books, ’pile’ being an important aspect of the collection as it seemed like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to have "just growed".

Ashokbabu would not always respond to an answer or a comment, making one wonder if he had heard you or absorbed what you had said. "You must read as much Bangla as you can," he said. He had said ’read’, not ’learn’. I noted the nuance and found it interesting. "Give them some time to settle down," Gouridi interjected. "They have only just arrived." Ashokbabu neither agreed nor disagreed with that, continuing with his train of thought. "And you must travel, meet as many people as you can on your own, not just responding to requests for calls." I said I would try to do that. He meant that the latest passing incumbent of the office inaugurated by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari should get to know something of the mind of West Bengal.

Ashokbabu never made any remark casually, ’just like that’. Even when he said or wrote some things that were strong, extreme and could leave a scar, they were never slips of the tongue or the pen. We met often and regularly thereafter, in the Mitra flat, in the home of V.K. Ramachandran and his wife, the welfare economist, Madhura Swaminathan. And, occasionally, in Raj Bhavan as when Italy’s prime minister, Romano Prodi, came on a state visit. Ashokbabu sparkled during the conversation over dinner with the guests, ministers in the state government, his former colleagues in the CPI(M) and the Left Front among them. His successor in office, the finance minister, Asim Dasgupta, sat directly ahead of him. State politics remained firmly out of the table-talk steered by Ashokbabu, traversed fields that included Michelangelo, Antonio Gramsci, the lyrics of the Tagore music that was being played by an instrumental choir, Victoria Ocampo and, in answer to a question on whether crime thrillers still fascinated him, a short dissertation on Earl Stanley Gardner’s oeuvre. All this at an ’Italian evening’. I could see that Ashokbabu stood at Bangla’s threshold but so keenly aware was he of the presence of non-Bengali guests that he used only his stylish English that evening.

When reminiscing, he was at his best talking about persons. Gossip never touched those descriptions, analysis suffused them. A novelist’s analysis. His description of Babu Jagjivan Ram’s sharp mind, understanding of peasant India, administrative skills was matched by a word portrait of that leader’s smoking style. "He always smoked," Ashokbabu said, "his expensive cigarettes holding them at the end of his closed fist like a hookah."

That was vintage Ashokbabu - a Bay of Bengal teeming with the plankton of experience, its bed laden with nodes of scholarship and minerals of insight, yielding up a catch of rare diversity, value. His conversation was lit up by a memory too sharp to forget good turns or bad, too big to hold willed trespasses against anyone. I did not know then and have not tried to find out later (including now, when I write this) what ’prattle’ really means but when I got the English rendering of his essays on "Bengal, Marxism and Governance", titled A Prattler’s Tale, I understood what it meant, keeping its self-mocking humour aside. I could hear his high-pitched voice in every word of it.

Ashok Mitra lived and died as a Marxist - committed to what he saw as the bane of class divisions, class interests and to the only road human society can take being that of uncompromising justice, social, economic and political. ’The Party’ was for him an instrument, as was the State, for this journey, not an end in itself. This cost him what can be called ’ samaja’. Of all the unforgettable lines in that book, the one that is never-to-be-forgotten, is, "A rule of life we have to abide by is that those who were once close, grow apart, those who were distant, come closer."

But this plangent thought did not deject him, nor deflect him from reflecting, speaking, writing. He had written a regular column for The Telegraph for many years using his full name, and later he wrote as ’AM’, which, for all its elliptical authorship, became known to be the vessel of Ashok Mitra’s views.

As much as he was capable of causing hurt, he could feel hurt. As much he could feel touched, he could be touching. When Gouri di died, suddenly, like a lamp blown out by a passing breeze, Biman Bose came to condole and, from Delhi, Prakash and Brinda Karat. He was touched by this and to an extent overcame his perplexity at the absence of many comrades at the funeral.

In subsequent visits to his flat I could see creeping up, like a film of indifferent dust, a sad resignation. The books in his study remained up-standing as before, but looked weary of life. And the singaras and gulab jamuns now looked a trifle lost without Gouri di’s voice asking, "Won’t you try another?" And his physical frame, always spare, shrank now to a spectral nothingness.

The last time I saw him, this January, with Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Ashokbabu said to us, "I am not even going to try to get up to see you gentlemen off." And then raising both his arms, he gestured what seemed like a farewell, a final farewell and - a benediction. Very un-Marxist? But then when did Ashokbabu do anything that was not un-something or the other?

Pronam, Ashokbabu.

Business Standard, May 2, 2018

Ashok Mitra (1928-2018): A voice of dissent with a tender heart

Those who were fortunate to receive his affection knew that beneath his rage was a gentle soul. No one showered affection the way Ashok Mitra did

Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Ashok Mitra’s death on Tuesday morning is the passing of an era. That cliché has a certain poignant resonance. Ashok Mitra embodied certain values and attitudes and a definite voice of which he was the last representative.

The values were those of dissent and thinking against the grain and the voice expressed itself with equal ease and sharpness in Bengali and in English. In Calcutta, as Kolkata was known till recently, he came from a long line of dissenting bi-lingual men of letters. Ashok Mitra’s provenance was not Calcutta. In conversation --- and he was unforgettable ...

Ashok Mitra (1928-2018): A voice of dissent
by Rudrangshu Mukherjee (May2, 2018, Business Standard) [hosted at document archive]

The Telegraph, May 03, 2018

In a league of his own: Ashok Mitra (1928-2018)

Prasenjit Bose

Twelve years ago, when the rank and file of the Left was still basking in the glory of a big election victory in the summer of 2006, an article had appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly titled "Suffrage in West Bengal". While lauding the electoral sweep of the Left Front, it expressed apprehension regarding the conversion of arable land for commercial exploitation at the State’s behest and cited the loss in the Bhangar assembly constituency as a warning signal. The article had cautioned the newly-formed Left Front government against deviating from left principles and urged it to "continuously watch its steps". Had such wise counsel been heeded on that day instead of being spurned by those in power then, history would perhaps have taken a different course in West Bengal. The author of that article, Ashok Mitra, passed away this May Day at the age of 90.

Mitra will no doubt be fondly remembered for his many accomplishments; he was an outstanding political economist and policymaker, a compassionate teacher, a literary genius, a meticulous chronicler of modern Bengal and a doyen within Indian Marxist thinkers, with a life fully devoted to the cause of human emancipation. But what set him truly apart was the sheer courage to stand by his convictions.

Here was someone who had served as the chief economic adviser to the Indian government when Indira Gandhi was at the helm. But he resigned when he saw State repression being unleashed on the Opposition and on the ordinary people in his home state. The fact that his successor to that position subsequently went on to become prime minister should give an idea of what Mitra had given up, because he was unwilling to compromise his principles and beliefs.

As the first finance minister of the Left Front government in West Bengal, Mitra played a key role in all the signature initiatives of the Left that transformed rural Bengal and ensured an enviable longevity for the government with Jyoti Basu at the helm. His contributions in bringing Centre-state relations and fiscal federalism to the centre stage of political debate in India in the 1980s had also won him accolades at the national level. He could easily have been the longest serving state finance minister in the country, but, once again, chose to resign from the cabinet when he felt that he would have to act against his convictions.

Detractors, outside as well as within the Left, have often held these acts as manifestations of hardline dogmatism, inflexibility and impulsiveness. However, at a time when politicians and policymakers were transmogrifying into marketable commodities in the ’post-ideological’, globalizing world, it was Mitra’s firm insistence on ideological consistency, intellectual honesty and selflessness that provided a formidable moral counterweight. It accorded him a credibility, which practically no political leader and only a few intellectuals could match. Combined with a razor-sharp intellect, this trust and credibility he earned as a truth teller put Mitra in a league of his own.

It is ironical that the party with which Mitra remained associated for most of his life could not realize his worth. Despite his differences with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Mitra did not ever hesitate either to defend the party in the face of right-wing assaults or to campaign for it during the elections. However, the party leadership, particularly in Bengal, could neither grasp the gravity of his critique nor possessed the political will to make course corrections along the lines that he suggested. Catastrophes like Singur and Nandigram could have been avoided if the party had listened to his early warnings on land acquisition and the industrialization drive. The dogged defence of those errors by the party leadership even after the people of Bengal had delivered successive electoral verdicts against it must have been even more painful. Ignoring his advice, the CPI(M) suffered heavy erosion of its base among the poor which is now paving the way for a further rightward shift in Bengal’s polity.

The reason why Mitra, the author of highly acclaimed works like Calcutta Diary and Apila Chapila, started a magazine titled Arekrakam in his twilight years is that the fighter within him never gave up. He continued with his incisive observations and comments against deviations in left principles till the very end.

There will never be another Ashok Mitra again. One can only hope that the sublime legacy he leaves behind either leads to serious introspection within the extant Left leadership — this would be nothing short of a miracle — or inspires the younger generation in rediscovering the principled Left in Bengal in a new content and form.

The Indian Express, May 3, 2018

Ashok Mitra (1928-2018): Subversive devil

Written by Pratik Kanjilal

Ashok Mitra was a polymath and polemicist. He was feared and loved because he had the language and sensibility of the poet.

“What interests you these days?”
“Nothing. I sleep.”
“What can we get you? What would you like?”
“I would like to die.”

For a few years, conversations with Ashok Mitra on visits to Kolkata had ended on this note. Not necessarily a grim note, for his death wish was articulated forcefully, in the voice of a man in full command of himself. My wife Antara always asked, and Mitra answered with the bare truth. He could be honest — he always was, anyway — because they had a shared past. “Never forget, I was your first driver,” he often reminded her mock-seriously. He had driven her and her mother home from the hospital where she was born.

Too long after Mitra expressed his last wish, the void that stands in for God in the communist cosmos has put out the light. He died on May Day, like his wife Gouri, whose loss he had borne painfully for exactly a decade. Much is being written about Mitra the economist, the politician, the activist and polemicist, the avatar which aroused the sharpest reactions. Indeed, he was a formidable figure, the only public intellectual who grimaced, teeth bared and sinews standing out at the jawline, when he engaged with opinion which he considered stupid.

Sometimes, that opinion emanated from his own party, and he lit into it with the same vigour with which he would attack a political foe. He was no party animal, and he sundered ties with the CPM in 1986, after serving as its finance minister in West Bengal. That left him entirely free to speak his mind.

I first met him at his Pandara Road flat in Delhi in the early Nineties, when he was a Rajya Sabha MP. It was for a profile, and I had to be careful on account of family connections. A mere profile has never served as a ground for divorce proceedings, but there can always be a first time. As it turned out, the copy was fairly harmless, apart from the mention of Sanchayita, a chit fund which had attracted the middle class in West Bengal with astronomical returns. Mitra, as finance minister, had reported adversely against it to the Centre and had it shut down. Sound economics but bad politics. Savings were wiped out, and the people felt that the ponzi had not cheated them, but the minister had. For the CPM, it meant the loss of the goodwill of the middle class. But to return to the inoffensive profile. After it appeared, Mitra reacted in Bangla: “Michke shaitan (subversive devil)!”

Sharp words made Mitra’s reputation as a columnist who was simultaneously loved and feared. Loved because he exposed what was wrong with the world, with politics, with the city, with your own life. And feared, because he could actually focus on your life, just yours, and take it apart with a scalpel. His work was especially powerful because he used the language and sensibility of the poet. He was one of the last bilingual writers, and his most popular work in Bangla is titled Kobita theke Michhiley (loosely, From Poetry to the Barricades). Lenin, Hemingway and Samar Sen stood shoulder to shoulder on the shelves in his sitting room, which was mainly furnished with literature, cinema, music, politics and economics, and his depiction of the poverty in the streets, the poverty of modern Bengali culture, and the poverty of contemporary thought were extraordinarily powerful because they were poetically articulated.

In his last years, Mitra turned publisher. He launched a Bengali little magazine named Arek Rakam (An Alternative). It published some of the finest names of Bengali literature, politics and academia, along with newcomers to the scene. It flourished for a while, but Mitra feared that he was unequal to the task. Perhaps on the basis of statements like this, the unkind said that Mitra was losing his mind as he turned 90 in April. But in March, I found him much more clear-headed than I am. It takes great clarity to acknowledge that death is a necessary end. Especially when it’s your own death.

Mitra’s last collection of columns, unabashedly titled First Person Singular begins shortly after Independence in 30 Pandara Road, in the same neighbourhood where he would live again almost half a century later as an MP. It was a D-II apartment shared by some of the people who set up the Planning Commission, including K N Raj and I G Patel, future governor of the RBI, apart from Mitra himself. He described himself as a clumsy hick from Dhaka, Banaras Hindu University and a little-known institute in the Netherlands, with a little teaching experience in Lucknow. Patel, from King’s College, Cambridge, and Raj, with a hot PhD from the London School of Economics, helped him leave behind his provincial diffidence (“I was crude and uncouth in my gait.”). Apart from Rhodes scholars and Yale lawyers, people from the pages of contemporary Indian history were regular visitors to the flat — Mohit Sen, Hiten Bhaya, Latika and Chanchal Sarkar, Jamila and George Verghese, M N Srinivas, P N Dhar, Usha and K R Narayanan.

Ashok Mitra was kind enough to give me a copy of the book. He still remembered that offending profile from 25 years ago. The inscription to the michke shaitan reads: “To Pratik, with fear and love.” It’s a strange feeling, to have been feared for one’s writing by a writer whose pen was universally feared. Even if it was half in jest.


Remembering and Celebrating the life of Dr. Ashok Mitra - Statement from PIPFPD (India Chapter)

India: Statement by SAHMAT on the Passing Away of Dr. Ashok Mitra

Ashok Mitra: The end of multiple eras Jayati Ghosh

Wisdom, for the People Prabhat Patnaik


The above tributes to Ashok Mitra are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use