Veteran CPI leader Satyapal Dang’s (1920-2013) political and personal life was marked by a commitment to proclaimed ideals and adherence to the core values of integrity and honesty. By Venkitesh Ramakrishnan writing in Frontline
Hat tip to Kevan Nelson for this
THE passing away of Satyapal Dang, the 93-year-old veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), on the night of June 15, 2013, virtually marks the end of an era of principled political practice in Punjab characterised by commitment to proclaimed ideals and steadfast adherence to the core values of integrity and honesty. The “Dang school” of politics has earned high praise from politicians belonging to various ideological hues, but there are hardly any real followers of the courageous and conscientious political, social and cultural interventions that Dang and his wife, Vimla Dang, espoused since their entry into Punjab’s political arena in the early 1950s. The political and personal life of this revolutionary couple was in stark contrast to the flashy and duplicitous ways that have come to dominate present-day politics. At one level, this contrast also worked as a symbol of the cynical trajectory of contemporary politics, particularly its manifestations in Punjab.
But while analysts and observers time and again sought to raise this point, Dang himself was never ready to sink into a lament over this trajectory. Rather, he sought to address this contrast symbolised by his own life using “historical analysis”, something he often referred to as his “favourite and inevitable intellectual tool”.
During the numerous interactions that this writer had with him since the mid-1980s, Dang repeatedly said that “the high courage of conviction and the level of principled involvement that one witnessed in the political practice of a large number of yesteryear politicians were basically products of the times they lived in”.
Elaborating further, he added as follows during a conversation in 1998: “Those tribulations, those challenges, those struggles and the values inherent in all this cannot be replicated. Hence, purely in terms of historical analysis you cannot also replicate or impose the political practice of those times on the present. All that is possible is to live and advance one’s interventions in such a manner that the lessons of the past, or at least some parts of them, reach the new generation of practitioners. We cannot do that without trying to understand the times through which this generation has come up, its own challenges, trials and tribulations. One needs to bring out the value of our experiences even while imbibing the present state of affairs. What we are seeking to do is to try and bring the values of our experience into the present.”
Indeed, the multitude of experiences that Dang and Vimla went through even before they made Amritsar their political station was nothing short of epochal. Those experiences were also characterised by polar opposites—of hope and despair, carrying out successful struggles and undergoing inhuman torture, the exhilaration of victory and the dejection of failure.
Hailing from Ram Nagar (Rasoolpur) village in Gujranwala district, now in Pakistan, Dang was politically precocious unlike many others of his age. Even in his early teens, as a student in Lahore, he had become part of the freedom movement. He was particularly fascinated by the Left stream in the Indian National Congress, a liking he shared with fellow activists such as Harkishan Singh Surjeet. His level of participation was such that he had become the general secretary of the All India Students Federation by the age of 25. With this role he moved into national Left youth politics and soon became part of the CPI commune in Bombay (now Mumbai).
During the early 1940s, the Bombay CPI commune was the fulcrum of several initiatives of the party on the trade union and cultural fronts. Dang had witnessed the inspirational first party congress of the CPI in 1943 in Bombay, which etched out the growing influence of Left politics in different parts of the country. His political experience of the later years also included the 1948 “revolutionary misadventure” based on the “Calcutta thesis”, which led to the banning of the CPI and torture of its cadre across the country. Dang and Vimla came to Amritsar following the collapse of the “Calcutta thesis” and the armed struggles and the consequent lifting of the ban on the CPI, which had decided to persist with revolutionary activity within the confines of the Indian democratic system. The task entrusted to Dang and Vimla by the CPI was to work among the growing working class population in and around Amritsar.
Working from Chheharta, the industrial town on the outskirts of Amritsar, Dang and Vimla soon became the “darlings” of the predominantly working-class people of the small town and its neighbourhood. In no time, this acceptance reflected as one of the first successes in the new democratic path chosen by the CPI. In 1953, Dang was elected the first president of the Chheharta Municipality. He went on to lead the local governing body for the next 14 years, until he recorded yet another famous electoral victory in 1967. It was his election to the State Assembly from the Amritsar West constituency. He defeated none other than the then Chief Minister, Giani Gurmukh Singh Mussafir, by a margin of approximately 10,000 votes. He went on to retain the seat in the next four consecutive elections held over a period of 10 years. He was a Minister during his first stint as a Member of the Legislative Assembly.
Throughout these parliamentary expeditions, Dang strove, in his own way, not to succumb to what communists term as parliamentary deviation. As a Minister, he refused to occupy the official bungalow and instead lived in the MLA quarters. He used a bicycle to move around his constituency during that period. Again as the Chairman of Chheharta municipality, he led two major workers’ strikes, in 1955 and in 1965. “Throughout the 1950s and 1960s,” Dang would point out during interactions, “the leaders and MLAs of the Communist parties took care not to lose sight of the larger political role of the movement and judiciously used the governance system as well as the path of struggles to uphold the rights of the masses.”
The majority of the interactions that this writer had with Dang were during the mid 1980s and the early 1990s, when he was waging a heroic struggle against Khalistani separatist militants. The CPI and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M) had taken up this fight in earnest. Dang, who progressed to his seventies during this period, was in the forefront of the fight. Based in Ekta Bhawan, which he had built in Chheharta, the spartan leader rallied his comrades and allies to spread political and ideological awareness among the people against Khalistani fundamentalism and militancy. Most of the leaders of the Congress and other regional parties who were targeted by Khalistani militants had chosen to flee from Punjab, but Dang stood his ground. Naturally, these struggles did make a significant political contribution to the return of normalcy in Punjab.
While this contribution was indeed acknowledged by a large number of politicians, sociologists, academics, security specialists and creative writers, the Left parties could not convert this into political advantage in later years. Interactions with Dang in the late 1990s and early 2000s revolved around this point, and the veteran leader identified a variety factors that had contributed to this political predicament. He felt that while the extremist versions of Sikh identity politics had indeed been crushed militarily and politically, softer and nuanced versions of the same were gaining ground in Punjab and these influences were changing the very value system of the political structure. “It is a structure that the Left parties have failed to come to terms with. Hence, they have not been able to devise organisational and campaign mechanisms to deal with it,” he told this writer during the 2004 Lok Sabha election campaign.
After the death of Vimla in 2009, Dang virtually went out of public life, partly on account of ill health and partly on account of a conviction that elderly leaders must give way to younger ones. Vimla and Dang had no children, again on account of a decision they had taken in keeping with the traditions of yesteryear communist leaders. He lived with his nephew and under the care of the CPI during his last years.
Dang’s passing away did not attract the kind of public and media attention that a political life as ethical and meaningful as his should have. But then, there is little doubt that Satpal Dang would have had no time to lament such a thing.