Harkishan Singh Surjeet
Harkishan Singh Surjeet (23 March 1916 – 1 August 2008) was a Sikh from Punjab involved in national Indian political scene. He played a major part in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) and was the General Secretary of the party from 1992 to 2005 and a member of the party's Polit Bureau from 1964 to 2008.
For the last two decades, coalition governments have been the norm in Indian national politics and Harkishan Singh Surjeet was a major power-broker in most of these coalitions. It was a role he described as one of the most trying of his life. In 1989 an anti-Congress party coalition came to power, backed by Surjeet's CPI(M) - but after Congress's Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, a Congress-led coalition took over until 1996.
A key aim for Surjeet was keeping the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) out of office. Surjeet backed the current Congress coalition which came to power in 2004. Indeed, in the vote of confidence debate in the Indian parliament last month on the US-India nuclear deal, Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, thanked Surjeet for his support in defeating the BJP.
He was born in a Bassi Jat family in Bundala (Rupowal), Jalandhar district in eastern Punjab. The region was the epicentre of anti-colonial struggle and, inspired by the socialist revolutionary Bhagat Singh. Surjeet lived the simple life. He was his own secretary, tending his own phone calls and keeping a mental note of the visitors he expected over the day. Surjeet relished sarson ka saag and jaggery from the farmlands of Punjab. He was prone to opening up to those who reached out to him in the Punjabi way, and this communist didn’t mind if anyone younger touched his feet.
Surjeet started his political career in the national liberation movement in his early teens, as a follower of Bhagat Singh. In 1930 he joined the movement of Bhagat Singh, "Naujawan Bharat Sabha". His revolutionary career was influenced by the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh. On the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, he hoisted the tricolour in March 1932 at the district court in Hoshiarpur at the age of 16. An action during which he was shot two times and arrested.
In court he stated his name as "London Tod Singh" (one who breaks London). Later he was punished by the colonial regime and sent to a reformatory school for juvenile offenders until 1934. Here, he came in touch with the early Communist pioneers in Punjab. After his release, he joined the Communist Party in 1934 and became a member of the Congress Socialist Party in 1935.
He was a co-founder of the Kisan Sabha (Peasants Union) in Punjab and was elected as the secretary of the Punjab State Kisan Sabha in 1938. The same year, he was externalized from Punjab and went to Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh where he started a monthly paper, `Chingari’. It was while writing patriotic poetry, and working for Punjabi papers, that he acquired the nom de plume "Surjeet" (conqueror of the gods) and replaced his surname "Bassi" with this name.
In the pre-war years he started publishing "Dukhi Duniya". He went underground after the outbreak of the second world war and was arrested in 1940. He was imprisoned in the notorious Lahore Red Fort where he was kept for three months in solitary confinement in terrible conditions. Later he was shifted to Deoli detention camp where he remained till 1944. During the partition, he tirelessly worked for communal harmony in violence-torn Punjab. When India became independent and partitioned in 1947, Surjeet was the General Secretary of CPI in Punjab.
Early role in the Communist Party
The seven and a half decades-long political life of Harkishan Singh Surjeet began with his staunch fight against British colonial rule. He played a pioneering role in developing the peasant movement and the Communist Party in Punjab before emerging as a national leader of the Communist Party of India and the All India Kisan Sabha. It culminated with his leading role in the CPI(M) for an eventful four decades.
By 1952 Surjeet was general secretary the Punjab CPI and was elected to the Punjab legislative assembly (1954-59). He was also elected to the Central Committee and Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India at the Third Congress of the Party in January 1954. But in the early 1960s the Sino-Soviet split in global communism triggered a crisis in the CPI. This was exacerbated in 1962 by the six-week Indo-Chinese war. Many CPI leaders, including Surjeet, backed China and were imprisoned.
He continued in the leadership of the CPI till the split in 1964. Surjeet was one of the leaders who fought against revisionism and constituted the core of the leadership who went on to form the CPI(M). His deep experience in developing the peasant movement and building the Party led him to shun Left sectarian positions whenever such deviations arose in the Communist movement. Surjeet was elected to the Central Committee and Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) at the Seventh Congress in 1964 and he continued in these positions till the recently-held Nineteenth Congress of the Party.
He had a life-long association with the peasant movement. He led the anti-betterment levy struggle of the farmers in Punjab in 1959. He served as the President and General Secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha for a long period. In these four decades, Harkishan Singh Surjeet made a key contribution to the Party’s programmatic and tactical policies. He was a master tactician who could translate the Party’s political line into practice, implementing it with great skill and innovation.
Playing an important role in Indian national politic
In 1967 Surjeet was elected to the Punjab legislative assembly for the CPI (M), serving until 1972. From 1978 until 1982 he was a member of the Indian parliament's upper house. In later years, ideological fervour within the CPI (M) gave way to pragmatism and business-friendly regional governments. Latterly, with funding from the People's Republic of China drying up, Surjeet's party could rely on support from emigrant British and north American Sikh communities. From the mid-1960s Surjeet visited Britain at least twice a year. In 1966 the CPI (M)-backed Association of Indian Communists was set up in London. He personally supervised its annual elections and those of the Indian Workers' Association (Great Britain).
His was a life-long fight against communalism. He was one of the first leaders who recognized the threat posed by the rise of the communal forces to the secular principle of the Indian State. He played a crucial role in 1989, 1996 and 2004 in creating the political formations and the setting up of governments which excluded the communal forces. Surjeet played a remarkable role in the defence of national unity and in formulating policies to counter the threat from the divisive forces. His firm stance and leadership in fighting against Khalistani terrorism in Punjab and the sacrifice made by over 200 Communists in fighting extremism constitutes a glorious chapter. From the late fifties, Surjeet was involved in tackling the problems of Jammu & Kashmir. He played a role in the evolution of the Assam Accord in the eighties. Imbued with deep anti-imperialism and the values of the nationalist movement, Surjeet looked at all issues of national unity from a democratic and secular standpoint.
In the CPI(M), Surjeet headed the international department for three decades. He developed relations with all the communist and progressive parties around the world. Under his leadership, the CPI(M) expressed firm solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles and national liberation movements. He made a notable contribution to the solidarity activities during the Vietnam liberation struggle, the Palestinian movement and the Cuba solidarity campaign. Surjeet played an important role in making the CPI(M) the largest contingent of the Left movement in the country. Surjeet absorbed Marxism-Leninism by sheer dent of self-study and learning from experience. He always stressed the fundamental importance of critically examining the Party’s ideological and political positions on the basis of Marxism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the nineteen nineties, he guided the Party in arriving at correct positions learning from the experience of the past.
He authored the books Land Reforms in India, Happenings in Punjab and the Outline History of the Communist Party. He wrote innumerable pamphlets on current political issues. As General Secretary of the CPI(M), he became the most authoritative spokesman for the Left and democratic forces in the country. He worked tirelessly for the defence of democratic and secular values and to see that India maintained its non-aligned and independent foreign policy. His views were sought and his advice heard with respect in political circles.
Just after independence, Surjeet was forced to go underground for four years . Several other communist leaders like A K Gopalan were arrested under the preventive detention laws. In the 1950s he led the historic anti-betterment levy movement in Punjab in 1959. His work with farmers led to his election as General Secretary and then President of the All India Kisan Sabha. He also worked in the Agricultural Workers Union. When the CPI split in 1964, Surjeet sided with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Surjeet was one of the nine members of the original CPI(M) Polit Bureau
He continued to rise within the party until he was elected General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPI(M) in 1992, a post he held till 2005, retiring at the age of 89. Surjeet was known for his steadfast opposition to the BJP and communalism. He was instrumental in forming a number of anti-BJP coalitions in the 1990s and for ensuring left support the present UPA government.  After retiring from his post as General Secretary, Surjeet continued to play an active role in Indian national politics. Many times, including after the 2004 Lok Sabha election and during the 1996-1998 United Front government, his role has been that of a cunning king-maker in parliamentary politics, mending and assembling broad coalitions.
With 43 seats, the CPI (M) that he leaves is the third largest party in India's parliament after Congress (145 seats) and the BJP (138). The CPI has 10. Surjeet was considered the main obstacle to the CPI (M) reuniting with the CPI and his passing may hasten reunification.
With his health declining, Surjeet was, for the first time, not included in the CPI(M) Polit Bureau at the party's 19th congress in early April 2008. He was instead designated as Special Invitee to the Central Committee. Surjeet died in New Delhi on August 1, 2008 of cardiac arrest. Surjeet, aged 92, had been convalescing at the Metro Hospital in Noida since July 25, 2008.
He is survived by wife Pritam Kaur, two sons - Pramjeet Singh and Gurucharan Singh (Punjab CPI-M committee member) - and daughter Charanjeet Kaur. One daughter predeceased him.
Tributes came from all quarters. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described him as a great political leader, a true patriot who was committed to the welfare of the downtrodden. President Pratibha Patil and Congress President Sonia Gandhi said his death was a loss not only to the Communist movement but to the entire country. BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani said that in Mr. Surjeet’s death Indian politics lost a veteran and the Marxist movement a dedicated activist.
Expressing profound grief at the passing away of Mr. Surjeet, the CPI(M) Polit Bureau said the party lost an outstanding leader and the country an authoritative representative of the Left and secular tradition. Hailing him as the “most authoritative spokesman for the Left and democratic forces in the country,” the Polit Bureau said Mr. Surjeet played a remarkable role in the defence of national unity and in formulating policies to counter the threat from divisive forces.
CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat said Mr. Surjeet was one of the builders of the Communist movement in the country and tirelessly worked for realising the goal of a classless society. Recalling his long association with the veteran Marxist leader, Mr. Karat said: “In his death, the Communist movement and progressive and secular forces have suffered an irreparable loss.”
The nonagenarian CPI(M) leader is survived by his wife, Pritam Kaur, their two sons and daughter. His body will be kept on Sunday morning at the party headquarters, AKG Bhavan, here. Cremation is scheduled to take place here in the evening.
An obit at the time of his death
CPI(M) Leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet Passes Away
After weeks of prolonged illness, the leading politician of CPI(M), Harkishan Singh Surjeet, passed away at 13:35 hours on 1st August, 2008 in Noida at the age of ninety two years.
Surjeet had played an important role in helping Sonia Gandhi gather secular forces in the aftermath of 2004 elections. At the time of the July 22nd trust vote, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid tribute to the "visionary leadership" of Surjeet in the formation of the government.
Harkishan Singh Bassi (Surjeet)
Harkishan Singh Bassi (Surjeet) was a communist politician from Punjab, India. He was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) until he stepped down due to health reasons at the 18th Party Congress in 2005 to be replaced by Prakash Karat. He is still a member of the Polit Bureau of the party.
Born in 1922 to a Bassi Jat family in Badala, Jullundhur district, Surjeet started his political career in the national liberation movement in his early teens, as a follower of Bhagat Singh. In 1930 he joined the movement of Bhagat Singh, Naujawan Bharat Sabha. On the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, he was shot two times as he attempted to raise the Indian tricolorover the court in Hoshiarpur. Later he was punished by the colonial regime. In court he stated his name as London Tod Singh (the Singh who breaks London).
In 1936, Surjeet joined the Communist Party of India. He was a co-founder of the Kisan Sabha (Peasants Union) in Punjab. In the pre-war years he started publishing Dukhi Duniya and Chingari. During the war, Surjeet was imprisoned by the colonial authorities.
When India became independent and partitioned in 1947, Surjeet was the Secretary of CPI in Punjab.
When CPI split in 1964, Surjeet sided with Communist Party of India (Marxist). Surjeet was a member of the original CPI(M) Polit Bureau.
Despite his age, Surjeet played an active role in Indian national politics into his nineties. Many times, including after the 2004 Lok Sabha election and during the 1996-1998 United Front government, his role has been that of a cunning king-maker in parliamentary politics, mending and assembling broad coalitions. Only this last year his declining health forced his absence, for the first time, from the Politburo at the party’s 19th Congress in April-May this year.(2008)
- Harkishan Singh Surjeet at Wikipedia
- Pay tribute to the CPI(M) leader at www.peopleforever.org.
- guardian.co.uk Harkishan Singh Surjeet - Veteran Indian Marxist politician, he acted as a major powerbroker