Surendra Mohan (1926-2010) upheld the tradition of personal honesty and political integrity of the first generation of socialists.
TO remember Surendra Mohan is to recall the finest human virtues and political values that the socialist movement in India contributed to the country's public life. He began his political life as a socialist and remained so through his more than six decades of multifarious involvement in public life.
Surendra Mohan will be remembered across the political spectrum for upholding the tradition of personal honesty and political integrity established by the first generation of leaders of the socialist movement. Within what remains of the socialist movement, he will be remembered as a conscience keeper, someone who rose above petty factional disputes, who tried his utmost to keep the movement and its core political values alive in the face of its political disintegration. In the wider world of progressive social movements in the country, he will be remembered as a trustworthy friend, a bridge between politics and social movements and an intellectual guide. Each facet of his personality showcased the best in the socialist movement.
Born in 1926 in Ambala, Haryana (in Punjab until 1967), Surendra Mohan was attracted to the socialist movement during the popular rebellion of 1942. This was a glorious moment in the history of the socialist movement. Socialist leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and Ram Manohar Lohia led the popular resistance during the Quit India movement since much of the Congress leadership was behind bars and the communists were supporting the British war effort. Surendra Mohan was one of the thousands of young people who were attracted to the then Congress Socialist Party (CSP).
Surendra Mohan's first contact with the socialist movement, with the Punjab unit of the CSP, reminds us of a forgotten chapter in the history of this movement. Munshi Ahmed Din, a senior CSP leader, visited DAV College, Jullundar, where Surendra Mohan was a final year BSc student and a general secretary of the district unit of the Punjab Student Congress. Soon after, in May 1946, a CSP unit was formed in Ambala, and Surendra Mohan was elected its district secretary. After Partition, the CSP came out of the Congress and became the Socialist Party. In June 1950, his participation in a satyagraha at Karehra village near Yamunanagar against the eviction of agricultural workers earned him two and a half years of rigorous imprisonment. Intervention by JP and Tilak Raj Chaddha led to his release after seven months.
The first general election (1951-52) was a big setback to the Socialist Party, as the electoral performance fell far below its expectations. This was followed by a period of disorientation and finally a split in 1955 when Lohia's followers left to revive their own Socialist Party. Much of the Punjab unit of the party remained with the parent organisation, then the Praja Socialist Party (PSP).
During this period Surendra Mohan completed his master's degree from Dehradun and taught sociology at Kashi Vidyapeeth for two years. He also started writing for the party's weekly organ, Janata, an association that was to persist for half a century as he and G.G. Parekh, the two co-editors, kept the journal alive.
In June 1958, he quit his job and became a party whole-timer at the request of Prem Bhasin, the then joint secretary of the PSP. He chose low-profile organisational work at the central office of the party and worked with the Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha (SYS), the youth wing of the party. Through the 1960s, he remained a key organisation person for the PSP, which briefly became the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP), and was its joint secretary from 1965 to 1971. He was the general secretary of the Socialist Party, reunited with the merger of most of the streams, from 1972 to 1977, when the party merged into the Janata Party.
A simple life
His life as a full-time political worker symbolised the virtue of aparigraha. He led a frugal life, remaining a bachelor until he was nearly 50. He suffered a heart attack while in prison during the Emergency but refused to seek parole on principle. He was fortunate in finding a political comrade in his wife, Manju Mohan. Unlike the lifestyle associated with the politically high and mighty these days, they led a very simple life. He earned his livelihood by writing for newspapers. Friends and admirers contributed to ensuring that the couple had a modest flat of their own in Delhi. Despite obvious financial difficulties, he donated to public causes the purse that was collected to honour him a few years ago.
He carried the spirit of detachment to political power as well. Despite playing a key role in the formation of the Janata government, he refused to partake of any fruits of power. He was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1978 and made no compromise to seek another term. He was a confidant of V.P. Singh when the latter was Prime Minister but declined the offer of the Rajya Sabha ticket and insisted that it be given to someone from the backward communities. H.D. Deve Gowda persuaded him to accept the post of Chairman of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission in 1996, but he resigned on his own as soon as the Janata Dal government fell in 1998. He thus carried forward the highest tradition of the socialist movement.
One of the principal architects of the Janata Party, Surendra Mohan upheld the political values of the socialist movement through the long history of the splits and unities of the Janata family. Once the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parted ways with the Janata Party in 1980, Surendra Mohan consistently opposed any collaboration with communal forces.
He remained with the Janata Party through the 1980s, led then by Chandra Shekhar, which then merged into the Janata Dal. As the disintegration of the Janata Dal began after the fall of the government, Surendra Mohan stayed with the mainstream Janata Dal and then the Janata Dal (Secular), until Deve Gowda formed a coalition with the BJP in Karnataka.
Until the end of his life, he was engaged in an attempt to bring together all those socialists who had stayed true to the values of the movement. As president of the recently formed Socialist Janata Party, he was working for its foundation conference in May 2011 when his journey came to an end.
A political leader who believed in the power of ideas, Surendra Mohan was a voracious reader and a prolific columnist both in Hindi and English. He was a walking encyclopaedia on the history of the socialist movement. His writings displayed a subtle grasp of issues in different parts of the country and an ability to connect everyday political developments with the larger developments in history.
He possessed a rare ability in contemporary political life: he exercised political judgment. Four collections of his essays in Hindi were published, besides three books authored by him. His writings connected India to the larger international context. One of the few Indian socialists to keep alive his connection with the Socialist International, Surendra Mohan was active in the Nepalese struggle for democracy and was a source of support for Burmese and Tibetan activists in exile.
Surendra Mohan was true to the tradition of the socialist movement, and his life was not confined to the party political domain. In the last three decades of his life, he spent much of his energy on the youth, social movements and people's organisations. He was associated with the People's Union for Civil Liberties ever since it was founded and was very active in promoting human rights. As a member of a political party, he could not have accepted any office in the PUCL, but those who worked with it fondly remembered his contribution to the organisation.
Following the legacy of JP, he was a source of support and inspiration to movements ranging from the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Right to Information to the struggle for human rights in Nagaland and Kashmir. He was one of the few leaders that activists from a vast range of ideological backgrounds, from naxalites to Gandhians, could relate to. He was associated with the National Alliance for People's Movements, the Socialist Front and the Rashtra Seva Dal.
Surendra Mohan's passing away snaps our bond with a glorious chapter in our national history. (He died in his sleep on December 17 in New Delhi after a cardiac arrest.)