A Tribute to an Assamese Socialist - Ajit Kumar Sharma

Leafing through one of the old editions of Frontline, I was intrigued by the opening lines of the obituary for Surendra Mohan, a renowned socialist leader of his time- “To remember him is to recall the finest human virtues and political values that the socialist movement in India contributed to the country’s public life.He will be remembered across the political spectrum for upholding the tradition of personal and political integrity established by the first generation of leaders of the socialist movement.”

Belonging to a generation born in the post liberalization era years after the socialist movement lost its vitality in the political spectrum, my understanding of the different facets of the movement remains partially obscure.However, I have grown up hearing about the charismatic socialist leaders and their contributions in the socio-cultural realm, especially in Assam. Socialists like Hem Baruah and Dr.Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya require no introduction as their contribution- educational, political, social and literary, hold a deep impact over the Assamese legacy.However,a name which we often forget to recall and whose contributions we fail to recognize while remembering the makers of modern Assam is that of another notable socialist leader,late Ajit Kumar Sharma.A prolific speaker,a prominent educationist, a gifted writer,a revered guru to generations of students and one of the most influential public intellectuals of his time,Sharma was a committed socialist.



Ajit Kumar Sharma
Ajit Kumar Sharma
Sharma was born on 21st of April,1922 at Charing (Sivasagar district) as the eldest child of the grand vizier of Assamese historiography Late Benudhar Sharma.It was a period of political turmoil and social unrest.The Freedom Movement was at its peak running on the lines of the ideology propagated by Gandhi.On the other hand,Marxism had begun penetrating the minds of the educated youth.These two ideological currents would go on to have a significant impact on Sharma and play an instrumental role in shaping his political vision and outlook towards the society. Having received his primary education in a number of schools in different places of Upper Assam, he eventually passed the matriculation examination from Jorhat Government High School securing star marks and a scholarship.His years as a student of this school headed by the widely revered educationist J.A. Ahmed (popularly known as ‘Jehirul Headmaster’) was indeed a life changing experience.He was also the editor of the handwritten school magazine - ’Senehi’.Post completion of his I.S.C. from Cotton College,Ajit Sharma enrolled at Benares Hindu University to pursue his graduation in Political Science, which further broadened his horizon.A contemporary of Sharma,Dr.BhupenHazarika spoke of his experience at BHU thusly-“Whenever I met a Marathi or a Gujrati student, I realized how similar they were to me.Among my fellow students were Africans,Indonesians and Japanese.A Muslim friend of mine was even studying Sanskrit!It was then that the seed of universal humanism was planted in me.” By the time he returned to Assam in 1946,Hazarika had developed an all India sensibility.Similarly, Ajit Kumar Sharma developed a national outlook which fostered a distinct confluence of both his national as well as sub-national identities.He spent the following years meeting national leaders like Nehru,Jay Prakash Narayan,Acharya Narendra Dev and Ram Manohar Lohia.While at Benares he came under the influence of Dr.MukutBehariLal, a renowned educationist and a follower of Acharya Narendra Dev,who introduced him to Democratic Socialism.He attended the regular intellectual discussions held at the latter’s residence and gained reputation as a prolific orator shortly. Interacting with this conglomeration of students hailing from different regions, speaking different languages and belonging to diverse cultural backgrounds,helped Sharma in understanding the commonalities and differences among the people of the country.

After completing his graduation he moved to Allahabad University(then popularly known as the ‘Oxford of the East’) for his post-graduation.Contemporaneous to his growing inclination towards active politics was his increasing passion for journalism.He once said,”I chose Allahabad for two reasons-Firstly to study under Dr.Beni Prasad and Dr.Tara Chand (later to be the political advisor to Prime Minister Nehru) and secondly to train in journalism in the Northern Indian Patrika.He worked as a trainee in journalism in the north Indian edition of the Amrit Bazaar Patrika for a year and wrote extensively on various issues which came in very handy after he returned to Assam and joined the Assam Tribune as a sub-editor in 1947.

Although his first brush with politics happened during the Quit India Movement ,he became actively involved afterjoining the Socialist party in 1947 in the face of serious opposition from his father late Benudhar Sharma who is said to have remarked, ”Socialist hoboleahise! Congress A,B,C khulibopare. Socialist party kihor?” (Becoming a socialist!What need of a socialist party when there can be Congress A,B and C .”)Later, referring to the ideological differences that he had with his son, Sharma said,”Moi Jodi puboloijau,Ajitjaboposwimoloi!”(If I walk towards the east, Ajit will march westward”).He was particularly influenced by the ideals of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia and became a lifelong ‘Lohiaite’. Ajit Kumar Sharma accompanied Lohia to erstwhile N.E.F.A. in 1959 where the latter was arrested for trespassing. Actively participating and contributing to the success of the various mass movements led by the socialists that caused big churns in the Assamese society in the mid-20th century such as the Ghiladhari Movement ,the Oil Refinery Movement and the Language Movement,Sharma worked tirelessly for strengthening the roots of the socialist movement in Assam.In the words of prominent journalist Dhiren Bezbaruah, “Ajit Sharma was not one who wore his socialism on the sleeve of his khadi kurta.He lived his life as a true socialist.He did not have to worry about the colour of his socialism.In any case it was not red and he differed quite a bit from the communists who were fond of calling themselves socialists in those days[…]He was also a vicarious socialist of sorts because he was quite free from the political machinations and the scheming of the present day politicians.His abiding concern was the people of the state and the greatest good of the greatest number.He was acutely conscious of the fact that due to Assam having a predominantly plural society with a large number of ethnic and linguistic groups as well as because of the economic and industrial backwardness of the entire region the problems of the state was different from that of the mainland states of India.” 

It was also during this period that Sharma sharpened his elocution skills.The use of oration as a vehicle for ideas is an old institution in India,probably because of its historically high illiteracy.Sharma perfected the craft through his carefully modulated voice,exquisitely sculpted gesture and a body languagethat changed with the topic,thus evoking adulation wherever he went. Despite his popularity, Sharma lost the Lok Sabha election thrice.The loss, however, neither diminished his personal integrity and honesty, nor did his faith in Parliamentary Democracy waver.Even a figure like Pandit Krishna Kanta Handique who maintained seclusion from active public life(engrossed mostly in reading and writing scholarly treatises) wanted Ajit Kumar Sharma to contest for the elections. Prominent educationist ArunGoswami once recalled with humour an incident when a cheque of three hundred rupees was handed over to him by Sharma. Goswamiwas stupefied on seeing the signature of Handique!

Sharma was a vocal proponent for the institution of the Assamese language as the official language of Assam and vehemently criticizedthe anglophile sections of the Assamese community for their neglect towards their mother tongue as reflected in his remarkable article titled Apuni Oxomiya ne Bharotiyo?In one instance, he walked out of a meeting of the Assam Sahitya Sabha in protest against the chairperson who was addressing in English.He probably inherited this unconditional love for the Assamese language and culture from his father,late Benudhar Sharma,whose strict adherence to the traditional Assamese customs and authority over the Assamese language is well known. A gifted writer himself, Ajit Kumar Sharma’s Omot Obhimot is a classic among the political treatises written in Assamese.

During the Emergency, Sharma was arrested for his political affiliations, thereby bringing untold trials and miseries to his family. It was due the grit and determination of his wife Smt. Karunamoyee Sharma in these trying months that the family rose from the conflict with dignity, and allowed Sharma to pursue his deeper ambitions. Her contribution in his life, hence, remains invaluable.During his stay in the Goalpara Jail as a political prisoner during the Emergency,Sharma translated Plato’s Republic to Assamese while his powerful articles published in various state and national newspapers and journals created waves across the country.

Ajit Sharma became a widely respected educationist.He turned Assam College Teachers’ Association (ACTA) into one of the strongest and most disciplined teachers’ organization in the country.He was removed from his job in Handique Girls’ College because he contested theLok Sabha election from Dibrugarh in the early 1960’s.One must note that college teachers at the time were not allowed to stand for elections.Sharma appealed against it and won a landmark case in the Supreme Court against the Assam Government.What makes this win memorable is that he won the case on his own, without any professional lawyer to defend his case.It paved way for the college teachers to join active politics and contest elections without the fear of losing their jobs.His contribution to the Assam Teachers’ Movement is immense and it remains a pity that most teachers today are unaware of such extremely important contribution to their professional identity, made by Ajit Kumar Sharma and the likes.

His role in bringing the Assam Movement to national attention as a member of the Rajya Sabha deserves special mention.A prolific orator that he was,Sharma succeeded in drawing the attention of the national parties towards the mass movement and vehemently criticized the Central Government for its indifference to the grave issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh.In one instance he got engaged in a heated debate with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she accused the Assamese people of being ‘chauvinistic’.He also expressed anger against the leaders of the movement who were least interested in informing him and other M.P.s from the stateabout the movement.He personally visited the strife torn areas to take note of the various atrocities committed by the police.Besides,he also argued vehemently for the employment of indigenous people in the North-Eastern Railways,banks and other government institutions and for the nationalization of the tea industry.

During his later years, Sharma often uttered the words of a famous French poem to renowned biographer Upen Borkotoky (English translation) -
“The brook is crooked/because it takes the path of/least resistance/so is the man.”

Ajit Kumar Sharma was definitely not one who would take recourse to opportunism; he treaded the path of least resistance. Unlike present day politicians he was tolerant to an uncommon degree.He never allowed political differences to act as a barrier in personal relations.Above all Sharma maintained the highest degree of personal integrity and upheld the best standards of public leadership in a democratic society.


By Avnibesh Sharma

2 comments:

  1. awesome article..and i really do appreciate the hard work and pain the author has undertaken in order to pen down the article in such an eloquent,,thank you Avinibesh,,thank you Assam topix,,hope to read more of this kind...

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  2. You have focused on some rare values which are now gradually fading from our society. Loved your appreciation of Ajit Kumar Sharma . But I love the article for the beautiful approach you have taken towards life. The conclusion is to be understood by all our present day politicians : " Unlike present day politicians he was tolerant to an uncommon degree.He never allowed political differences to act as a barrier in personal relations.Above all Sharma maintained the highest degree of personal integrity and upheld the best standards of public leadership in a democratic society."

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