Dipankar Bhattacharya: The revolutionary statistician in Left's Bihar rise

Bhattacharya has helped ML to grow on university campuses when other Left parties have struggled to attract talented young people
Dipankar Bhattacharya is seen as one of the most rooted among the top communist leaders in the country, lives out of his party’s offices, and is more likely to explain his political position in accessible Hindi, English or Bengali than utter inscrutable phrases about dialectical materialism.

Bhattacharya is the general secretary, or the chief, of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation – popularly known simply as Maalay.

Curiosity about him, and his party, has increased after the “ML” won 12 of the 19 seats it contested in the Bihar Assembly polls, and lost another three by narrow margins – the best strike rate among all big contesting parties.

More than its wins, the ML set the “agenda” for the Bihar Assembly polls, focusing the political discourse on issues of livelihood. Its cadre contributed significantly towards making public meetings of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav the social media success that they turned out to be.

Bhattacharya has not only let it be known that his party, and the larger coalition of the Left parties, hopes to set the agenda for the West Bengal Assembly polls, due in April-May 2021, as well. He has said, although not in so many words, that the Congress needs to be shown its place when it comes to seat sharing.

Bhattacharya has said the Left parties should fight the ruling Trinamool Congress in Bengal, but identify the Bharatiya Janata Party as its enemy number one.

There is little disagreement within the Left on that count. Neither is there any doubt that, particularly after its performance in the Bihar Assembly polls, the bigger threat within the Left movement to the supremacy of a morbid and gerontocratic CPI(M) is Bhattacharya and his CPI (ML).

At 59, Bhattacharya is the youngest among the leaders of the Left movement in India. The success of the ML in Bihar has revived the imagination of leftists across the country that a return to the glorious past when the left parties, particularly the Communist Party of India (CPI), was an important electoral player in the Hindi-speaking states.

Bhattacharya was elected chief of his party in 1998, at age 38, succeeding Vinod Mishra, “comrade VM” to his followers, after his death. While there was some heartburn within the organisation at this, the transition was smooth since “VM” had handpicked him.

Bhattacharya would sit in district committee meetings of the party from a young age, and in turn has groomed a generation of younger leaders to do the same, helping ML to grow in university campuses in the last couple of decades when other left parties have struggled to attract and retain talented young people. Currently, the 75-member central committee of the party has at least half a dozen members who are under 30 and 15 who are under 40 years.

Bhattacharya’s accessibility and rootedness – when in Delhi he stays at his party office in East Delhi’s working-class locality of Shakarpur, and had to spend the entire Covid-19 lockdown period in that office – has helped expand the party’s support base. After the “ML” came “overground” in 1992, it was mainly when Bhattacharya, or “comrade Dipankar”, has been at the helm that the party has focused on mass movements.

Bhattacharya was born in Guwahati, according to his educational certificates, on January 5, 1961. He was actually born in December 1960 but no one in his family could remember the exact date. His father was a ticketing clerk in the Indian Railways.

The leader’s associates say none in his immediate family was associated with Left politics. His father made progressive literature available to a young Bhattacharya, which seems to have influenced him greatly.

Later when Bhattacharya joined the ML after completing his M. Stat. from Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute, his father good naturedly told him that he may not have provided him such literature if he had known know his son would end up in a Communist party.

In his early teens, Bhattacharya moved to Kolkata and enrolled in Ramakrishna Mission Vidyalaya, Narendrapur. He topped the higher secondary board exams in the state.

“We were probably in sixth or seventh standard when one day our teacher Abdul Ghani got Bhattacharya to our class to tell us, ‘this boy is bright’. Unlike many of us who loved our addas, he was introvert and studious sorts. We expected he would one day be a top-notch statistician. It came as a surprise when I discovered a decade later that he was a political activist,” reminisces filmmaker Joydeep Ghosh.

Initially, Bhattacharya worked with the ML’s trade union, editing publishing party organs, such as The Flaming Fields of Bihar. Public perception aside, the ML insists that in what is known as its “violent phase”, it faced more violence than it meted out, particularly at the hands of feudal armies of Bihar like Ranveer Sena, Sunlight Sena, and so on.

Those who have long memories have found the ML’s alliance with the RJD incongruous. Mohammad Shahabuddin, a former RJD MP from Siwan, is serving a life sentence for killing at least 15 of the ML’s cadres, including former JNU students’ union leader Chandrashekhar Prasad. What the party's struggle has achieved in Bihar, as its leader Kavita Krishnan puts it, was not only fight for social and economic justice but to give its poorest the "khaansne ki azaadi" in a deeply entrenched feudal set up.

Under Bhattacharya, and a band of second-rung leaders such as Kavita Krishnan, the party has planned to use the success of Bihar to invest in mass movements against the BJP-led government at the Centre. “The Bihar result has not only proven those writing obituaries of the Left movement in India wrong, but also underlined the immense appeal of movement-based politics,” says Krishnan. She hopes that the focus on Bhattacharya the individual, as also the party, would help bring issues of social justice and livelihood to the forefront.

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