S.S. Ray - an administrator par excellence (Obituary)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

KOLKATA - Sophisticated and articulate, Siddhartha Shankar Ray was an administrator par excellence who crushed the Naxalite movement in West Bengal and was the first envoy to put business on the India-US agenda.

A grandson of legendary freedom fighter Chittaranjan Das and himself a great barrister, Ray was said to be the brain behind then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to declare a nationwide internal emergency on June 25, 1975. He also successfully battled the Khalistani terrorists as Punjab governor.

Siddhartha Ray was born in 1920 in a well to do family of south Kolkata.

His father Sudhir Kumar Ray was a legal luminary while his mother Aparna Devi was Deshbandhu C.R. Das’s eldest daughter.

He studied at the St. Xavier’s School and Presidency College and was called to the bar in England. He went on to become a highly successful barrister in India.

Siddhartha Ray jumped into politics by joining then West Bengal chief minister Bidhan Chandra Ray’s cabinet in the 1950s, but within a short while differences arose between the two. Ray quit the cabinet and won a by-election with the support of the opposition Communist Party of India (CPI).

He fell out with the Communists when they opposed India’s stand during the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and later returned to the Congress.

When Indira Gandhi took over as prime minister in 1966, Ray became one of the members of her inner circle of loyalists and was made the union education minister in 1967.

He sided with Indira Gandhi when she took on Congress old timers and split the party in 1969.

In 1971, he was appointed in charge of West Bengal affairs and became the chief minister a year later when the congress coasted to a thumping victory in an election, which the Communists dubbed as rigged.

With the Left extremists called Naxalites then carrying on a violent agrarian movement in the state and students from the Presidency College and several universities joining the rebel underground movement in large numbers, West Bengal was then a blood spewing terrain.

Ray dealt with the Naxalite movement with an iron hand, and gradually crushed it, amidst widespread allegations of police excesses and killings of youths in fake encounters.

Despite being a chief minister, Ray wielded considerable clout in national politics, and was one of the close circle of Congress leaders present at Debakanta Barua’s house when Indira Gandhi decided to clamp nationwide Emergency. It is said that it was Ray who drafted a letter for then president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to issue the proclamation for the Emergency.

With the fundamental rights suspended, opposition leaders jailed and press censorship imposed, there were soon allegations of excesses and tortures. The Emergency cost the Congress dear as it lost the central government two years later, when different opposition outfits came together to form the Janata Party.

After the Congress lost power at the centre and was also voted out in the state, Ray turned against Indira Gandhi and even made a failed bid for the Congress presidency.

Ray spent the few years in political oblivion, concentrating instead in his soaring legal practice.

However, he returned to the Congress party after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, by striking up a rapport with her son Rajiv Gandhi. He was made the governor of Punjab on April 2, 1986 at a time when the Khalistani terrorist movement was at its peak in the northern state.

Aided by a tough supercop K.P.S. Gill, who took over as Punjab Police Director General in 1988, Ray succeeded in considerably weakening the militants in the state.

After Rajiv’s death, Ray returned to state politics as leader of the opposition in 1991.

Using his legal acumen and debating skills, Ray gave tough times to the ruling Left Front that had been ruling the state since 1977. Ray’s sharp verbal duels with his personal friend but political foe - then chief minister Jyoti Basu- is etched in golden letters in the state’s legislative history.

A year later in 1992, then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao made him India’s ambassador to the USA, a job in which he again distinguished himself.

During his four-year stint, that ended in 1996 with the change of power at the centre, Ray became the first ambassador to put business on the India-US agenda.

Westernised, tall and handsome, Ray was one of the last representatives of the colourful but cerebral pre-Independence genre of politicians, who could fit into any role with effortless ease by using his acumen and diplomatic skills.

Filed under: Politics

will not be displayed