Suranjit Sengupta passed away on Saturday, Feb 4, after having battled blood cancer for more than a year. It was a personal blow for me as I knew him as a senior friend and mentor whom I held in great affection for more than three decades. Another bond with our shared collective past is broken today; a past that links us to a common history is gone. How the history of our future will judge him is another matter, but the thought of never meeting him again for a loud conversation filled with laughter causes pain.
So goodbye, Suranjit dada. You meant a lot to many of us. Being a politician was only a part of your personality. You were a person who was larger than life, who battled for a space in history, earning both glories and brickbats. But you never gave up.
“Born in 1946 at Anwarapur in north-eastern Sunamganj district’s Dirai Upazila, Suranjit Sengupta got involved in leftist politics in his early life and was elected a lawmaker seven times,” says bdnews24.com.
He was a rarity in Bangladeshi politics, an MP who actively participated in the liberation war. When almost everyone was washed away by the AL tide of 1970, he won his election and earned the right to be part of an exceptional phase in the nation’s history.
His constituency was Dirai, a remote part of the Sunamganj haor area where poverty, denial and exclusion are part of everyday life. It is therefore no accident that he gravitated towards Left politics and ended up as a National Awami Party (Muzaffar/pro-Soviet Union) candidate. Because of that, he became a Member of the Constituent Assembly which wrote the Constitution in 1972. “Of everything I did in life, it was worth being part of that assembly. Nothing can take that away.” To him that was his proudest achievement.
Suranjit Sengupta believed in the Constitution and held it to be the highest platform of all. But he was not interested in being a constitutional expert or a lawyer but a parliamentary politician who believed it was the supreme body in the State as it was composed of elected officials.
But over time, he also saw the slow withering away of institutions, the decay of politics, the political system and ultimately the balance between the three organs of the state. “No constitutional body is higher than the legislature, not even the judiciary where there are appointed officials. They are accountable to their oath and we to the people.”
But at our last meeting on a TV talk show we argued on this as I insisted that the august body had shrunk and shrivelled and its status was nowhere near the one he and others had imagined it would be in the first constitution. He did not give in but he agreed that the situation had become more distant than what he had wanted to see. But the loyalty never wavered.
He was not a member of the established elite but was among the failed centre-left idealists of Bangladesh, a club which included a few others, including Matia Chowdhury and Nurul Islam Nahid. They had been the most committed politicians of the lot yet the political space they occupied had vanished.
And ultimately, one after another, many made their way to the AL which gave them a sanctuary of sorts. At least he knew he could bat his way through his innings till he was out. He believed in politics as a way to serve but the space he grew up in politically had disappeared. And without that idealism fuelling them, something deep has been lost in all leftists as they try to make peace and survive in a political world they did not consider their own once.
By default or otherwise Sengupta was also the leader of the Hindu community in Bangladesh and for them the loss is very high indeed. Given the scenario, they do need a voice no matter if it is noisy or arbitrary but a voice that they can call their own. He gave his faith community that leadership. It is here that his identity as a political leader of the Hindu community became important.
He knew better than most about the shift in political configuration when the religious card became a major factor in politics and where the minorities stood on this. Ironically, the man who with others presided over the passage of a secular Constitution ended up defending a House that adopted Islam as a state religion. Neither meant much, though, in a land where people’s faith ideas are entirely social rather than theological.
At the end of the day, Suranjit Sengupta was a realist. He knew how the game was played, what his cards were and what he could do with them. I remember an anecdote from 1985. I had made the government angry and was facing the music. Hearing all this, he shook his head and said, “In third world journalism, remember that when the wind blows loudly and you can’t stand up, take shelter and wait for the storm to pass. Once it’s over, return and play your music loudly again. “
It was a practical and hard learned lesson from a man who with many disadvantages had to play in his own field and do up the music. He played his innings, batted well, got some decent runs and is now gone. He did his best.
Rest in peace. Goodbye, Suranjit dada, and best wishes.