I have been asked to write about Vaskar Nandy. But I am a little hesitant as he is just dead. A frank writing about him may not be all laudatory which his friends and followers may not like. And if you don’t write frankly why write at all! I should also admit that I hardly had any contact with him and his politics for past three decades. At the same time this is also true that over the years there had not been major policy shift in his political thinking.
Vaskar Nady was born into a wealthy family. The Nandies had come from erstwhile East Bengal after the partition and settled in New Jalpaiguri, West Bengal. Vaskar Nandy was a charismatic person. He was widely read and immaculately dressed. Whenever he spoke, he spoke with conviction. His English was brilliant. Though his mother tongue was Bangla, he could speak Assamese with all its nuances. There was a myth around him that he knew everything. In those days we also half believed it. He was like a flamboyant revolutionary.
Vaskar Nandy was a lover and a loving person. He was always drawn to intelligent people. He could enliven a discussion with his deep knowledge in the subject and uncanny humour and witticism. To be in his company you needed some learning and intelligence. Thinking about him now I remember a trivial incident which etched in my memory. Perhaps, the location was Moinaguri tea estate, a few kilometers north to Jalpaiguri. There was an important party meeting. People reached there in the evening as the meeting was to start next day morning. Next day morning, people bathed in the open with the water fetched from a stream running nearby. After his bath Vaskar Nady hanged his towel on a line in the courtyard of the house. Then came late Saurav Bora, (Student leader Saurabh Bora was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on the Dibrugarh University campus on May 25, 1986) water dripping from all over his body and reached for Vaskar Nady’s towel to dry himself. Vaskar Nady was alarmed seeing that Saurav was going to use his towel.
But then Saurav challenged him with the expression on his eyes, “So what aren’t we all comrades?” Vaskar Nady backed out. Saurav used the towel. This trivial incident bemused me a great deal. As if the confident and surer looks in Saurav’s eyes and the bewilderment in the eyes of Vaskar Nandy spoke a volume about the mental horizon of two different worlds in Indian reality!
In early 80’s I had spent couple of days with him in Delhi. Once he practically saved me by clutching me by my hair from being run over by a car while crossing a road. Because of his deep grounding in Marxism and contemporary affairs he could easily win over a large number of youths to his party in the early 1970s. I could say with confidence that there was a time when PCC CPI (M L) was the home of a group of most brilliant and sharp minds in Assam.
Perhaps it was Ram Manohar Lohia who said, “Caste is a fossilized class in Indian society.” The caste is not only a caste it is also a class. This is an important observation about the Indian society. In classical Marxist literature there is hardly anything on caste, except some stray remarks by Marx, though it dealt with nation and nationality questions in detail.
Marx’s theory of Asiatic mode of production was critiqued by the Marxist scholars such as Irfan Habib and others. But any attempt to understand Indian society past and present will be futile without trying to understand the caste system.
Here we can also refer to an observation made by E M S Namboodiripad, “An important development of the first half of the 1930s which influenced me was the rise of a particularly radical socio-political movement initiated by some leaders of the oppressed Ezhava caste. The late C Kesavan of Travancore unleashed a movement which tried to integrate the aspirations of the democratic people of Travancore for responsible government with those of the oppressed castes and religious minorities for social justice in the then upper caste dominated autocratic regime of the state.”
The majority of nationalists denounced him and his movement as ‘casteist’ and ‘communal’ and,therefor ‘anti-national’. The weekly paper edited by me then was one of the two organs of the nationalist Malayalam press( the other being the one by that patriarch of Kerala journalism, the late A. Balakrishna Pillai) which extended full support to the movement led by Kesavan.”(Once Again On Castes and Classes)
Vaskar Nandy was deeply interested in the caste class equation in Indian society. He asserted that the class exploitation is manifested in caste exploitation and people belonging to so called lower castes and ethnicities badly suffer in the hands of so called higher castes and caste Hindus. Hence caste struggle is a form of class struggle only. With this theoretical orientation, PCC (CPI-ML) formed a platform called URMCA in 1980s to unite the suffering masses belonging to deprived caste and ethnic communities in Assam.
It was successful to some extent in giving vent to the voices of these communities. But, if a caste or ethnicity based movement does not follow the democratic procedure and class line, after a time it loses its direction and turns reactionary. I think, it happened to URMCA too. No doubt Vaskar Nandy was a brilliant theoretician, but could we say the same about his praxis?