West Bengal bids emotional farewell to Jyoti Basu


Kolkata: Hundreds of thousands of mourners, many of them weeping, poured onto the streets of Kolkata Tuesday as the body of India’s longest serving chief minister and Marxist icon Jyoti Basu was taken on the last journey and handed over to a hospital for medical research.

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A sea of humanity literally took over Kolkata, from where Basu presided over West Bengal for 23 long years from 1977 to 2000. A galaxy of national leaders and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina thronged the state funeral that brought the sprawling state to a halt.

The last journey, as it wound through the heart of the city which was the epicenter of his long political life, took over nine hours.

Basu’s reputation as a mass leader was reinforced as men, women and the young lined the route of his final journey, frantically trying to catch a final glimpse of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) patriarch who almost became the country’s prime minister in 1996.

Basu, the last of the CPI-M’s nine-member founding politburo, was accorded a guard of honour and a three-gun salute by police personnel as part of the emotive funeral at Mohar Kunj, a public park in the heart of the city.

Basu died on Sunday at the age of 95 after battling multiple illnesses.

After the bugle sounded the last post, his body was donated for medical science to the state-owned SSKM Hospital, as per his wish. Basu’s eyes were donated soon after his death.

Scenes of public affection were evident everywhere his body was taken to – the funeral parlour, the CPI-M state headquarters at Alimuddin Street, the state secretariat, the assembly and finally Mohar Kunj.

People peeked from windows and balconies along the route. Many tried to break the barricade to get closer to the cortege, leading to scuffles with security personnel. Hundreds of party activists carried the red party flags.

There were uneblievable scenes at the state assembly where over 200,000 people filed past Basu’s body as it lay in state draped in India’s national flag since the morning. There was a near stampede when people got restive due to their long wait for a glimpse of their departed leader.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina, former Bangladesh president H.M. Ershad and ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi were among the dignitaries who paid their last respects.

Wreaths were laid on behalf of President Pratibha Patil and Vice President Hamid Ansari on Basu’s body.

Sonia Gandhi placed a white wreath, stood for a while and then left. She was accompanied by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Both enjoyed warm relations with Basu, who had played a key role in influencing the Left to back the Congress-led UPA government when it took office in 2004.

Former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani, otherwise a staunch anti-Communist, were also present.

Among others who offered floral tributes were BJP president Nitin Gadkari, Janata Dal-United president Sharad Yadav, Jharkhand Chief Minister Shibu Soren, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad, Telugu Desam Party chief N. Chandrababu Naidu, Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar as well as former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee, a Jyoti Basu loyalist.

Venezuela’s ambassador to India placed a wreath on behalf of his country’s leftist president Hugo Chavez.

After the tributes were over, six soldiers took over as pall bearers and slow-marched to a gun carriage that rolled towards Mohar Kunj ground, near the SSKM Hospital.

In the morning touching scenes were witnessed when the hearse reached the party headquarters, Muzaffar Ahmed Bhavan, as all members of the politburo stood with their fists clenched, giving the traditional red salute.

With tears in their eyes, CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat, his colleague Sitaram Yechury, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and his Kerala and Tripura counterparts V.S. Achuthananadan and Manik Sarkar carried the body on their shoulders to place it on a makeshift raised platform on the portico.

With small photos of Basu pinned on their chests, the politburo members offered floral tributes. The granddaughters of Basu – Koel, Doel and Payel – broke down as they placed garlands over the body.

From there, the cortege moved to Writers’ Buildings, the seat of the state government, where Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee paid floral tributes to the man he succeeded in 2000. After a short halt, the cortege moved to the state assembly where the body was kept in state for five hours before the final journey to the SSKM Hospital.

All along the procession, CPI-M cadres carried 96 flags at half mast to denote his age and held aloft posters that read “Jyoti Babu, Lal Salam!”. They also formed human chains throughout the route.

Basu becomes the first communist leader in the country to be accorded a state funeral.

Basu’s death comes at a time when the party is at its lowest ebb in the state and many doubt if the party that he helped found can retain power in assembly elections due 16 months away.