To muse over any life, especially a life that was lived as somewhat one of its kind in more than one sense usually is a self-enriching exercise. At a time when the language of arrogance and hate, regularly steals the show, revisiting a life that strived to be loving, gentle, compassionate, upright and not overbearing certainly serves to reaffirm our faith on the intrinsic attributes of civil and social life in the 19th century. Any scope to indulge in such an exercise also serves as an open invitation to have a trip down memory lane and revalue the past from a newer perspective.
Time and people, we all know, once gone are gone forever. Yet, that hardly justifies us to lose sight of the fact that our present is nothing but a derivative of that bygone. In ceaselessly learning and unlearning from whatever we experience in the journey of life lies the scope of amelioration of our destiny. Lessons we may derive from some lives can indeed be of much help in this regard.
A host of people who knew him from close quarters would perhaps unhesitatingly agree that Dr Bidhu Bhusan Dutta was a witty, warm hearted and alert personality who wore many hats. He was caring, compassionate, firm and focused besides being a serious academic, social activist, institution builder, philanthropist, and seasoned politician. Unlike as it often happens in the present, a difference of opinion even if erupted into fierce debates had never, ended up in a hurt feeling leading to a breakup in relations. On many a times if someone used to have different take on the way he chose to react, he used to say, ‘I cannot abandon anyone. If someone chooses to leave me it is their take.’ Four decades of association with Dr Dutta was bound to have its own ups and turns. If that had never succeeded in denting the personal bonding of love and respect we mutually were privy to from day one, much of that credit rests on his composed and endearing personality.
Bidhu Bhusan Dutta was born at a time when the country was struggling hard to secure her freedom from the clasp of colonial rulers. He was born to the Dutta family of Duttagram at Maulavibazar, Sylhet now in Bangladesh. Sylhet was one of the revenue surplus districts of the Assam-Bengal Province. Its relatively better economic standing helped it develop a rich socio-cultural as also educational base. Hence scores of personalities from this place played lead roles in influencing the academic, political, social and cultural activities of the time. Sri Bipin Chandra Pal of the indomitable Lal, Bal, Pal trio in India’s struggle for independence, Dr Syed Muztaba Ali, the renowned scholar, teacher and author, Dr Triguna Sen, noted academic and the Education Minister of independent India, to name a few amongst others who hailed from Karimganj, then a subdivision of Sylhet.
Sri Bidhu Bhusan Dutta had his early education at Karimganj which by then had become a subdivision of the district of Cachar in a freed but partitioned India. After completing his early schooling, he came to Shillong and took admission in the Arts stream in St. Edmund’s College from where he got himself graduated with honours in Economics. He came in contact with Dr Basudev Datta Ray, his teacher and hostel warden and Sri Hiteshwar Saikia, one of his classmates as also his hostel roommate. As it had to happen, both Dr Datta Ray and Sri Saikia had played vital role in the shaping of his life and activities in the years that followed.
Sri Dutta studied in Shillong, the capital of undivided Assam during his student days at St Edmund’s college. The quaint hill city that it then used to be, was generally viewed as the educational hub and socio-cultural capital of the region. As such, he took full advantage through his active association with some such social, cultural and spiritual organisations to gain deeper insight into the dynamics of public relations. Sri Dutta’s leadership qualities were enhanced by his efforts to form regular though informal study groups with select fellow friends who were inclined to develop a more profound and nuanced understanding of the social dynamics then at play. ‘Fariadi’ meaning ‘plaintiff’ was the outcome of one such endeavour that during its rather short existence attempted to record, analyse and place in perspective some of the burning social concerns of the time. Subtly, and possibly unknowing, he was being prepared for his glory days in the realm of politics.
After graduation, Sri Dutta left Shillong for a while and went to Calcutta to do his Masters from there. He began his teaching career as a professor of Economics at his college and served the institution for over three decades. His skills at teaching enthralled scores of his students over the years and contributed towards his establishing a lifelong bonding with many of them. Late Sri Purno A Sangma, formerly hon’ble Speaker, Loksabha and the hon’ble Chief Minister of Meghalaya was one of his illustrious students.
His presence in the college common room, and the discourses and dialogues that used to take place at the college canteen over tea and snacks with him as the table head indeed were vigorous and enriching. We the younger ones at the table were almost never allowed to foot the tea and snacks bill during those not so rather routine moments.
Sri Dutta’s keen interest to remain informed and alive on the developing trends in his subject prompted him to be in touch with legendary scholars and teachers of hard core economics such as Professor Amlan Dutta, Professor Bhabotosh Datta, Professor Tapash Shankar etc. It was this association that in the later days inspired him to edit and publish the ‘Selected Works of Prof. Amlan Dutta’ in five volumes. His interest and inclination to learn, his own erudition and fluency in English, the language that is used as the medium of instruction in the institute where he taught, helped him to evolve as a radiant teacher in his field.
The incisive academician in him had always driven him to write and research in the scores of published research papers. Some of his select publications include the books Resurgent India (Edited), Land Use Pattern in North East India, Insurgency and Economic Development in North East India, Economic Development through Banking – A case study of Meghalaya, Shifting Cultivation in North East India amongst scores of others in which he did contribute a chapter of his own.
In this context, I fondly recollect the evening sessions I was privy to attend at his home at Laitumkhrah on days he could spare time to join in enlivening discourses to the general enrichment of all present there. During the time he was writing his doctoral thesis (he obtained his Ph. D. degree in Economics from Gauhati University under the supervision of Professor K. Alam). Such sessions used to be rather frequent with our very obliging boudi, Smt Krishna Dutta, his better half, generously supplying us tea and mouthwatering snacks.
He was deft in handling apparently contradicting situations with relative ease. People of caliber and competence are always a rare breed, but if available, they become significant sources of support and strength to the institutions they serve. Dr Dutta surely has left an enviable legacy behind him in this regard.
In his tenure at St. Anthony’s College, he was well appreciated by the management for being an exemplary teacher and also because he had always been thoroughgoing in his approach in extending support to the institution in its endeavour to live unto its maxim ‘ever more, better ever’. At the same time while representing fellow colleagues as employees of the institution, he enjoyed their unwavering trust as well. The goodwill he enjoyed across a broad spectrum of academic, political, bureaucratic circles had often been of tremendous help for seeing issues in perspective.
Teachers, are often referred to as the nation builders. Seldom, however, the nation cares to reward its teachers to materially compensate the service they render to the cause of nation building. He was alive to this cruel reality. He was a founding member of the Meghalaya College Teachers’ Association and influenced the adoption of University Grants Commission (UGC) scales of pay for college teachers in the state. He also served as President of Shillong Academy and Women’s College until his death.
Despite his involvement with academic institutions, he was also associated with other social and Philanthropic institutions. One of his outstanding contributions to the people of Shillong in particular and that of the region in general and beyond was the establishment of the Sri Aurobindo Institute of Indian Culture. As its Founder Chairman and Managing Trustee, it was this initiative that kept him involved in bitter struggles at various levels for a long period, nearly till the time he breathed his last. Asian Confluence is another of the institutions of which he, as its founding Chairperson, shouldered the responsibilities of steering its activities all along.
As founder Chairman of the project Resurgent India, a think-tank comprising of hundred prominent Indian personalities hailing from various disciplines of life. He steered to carry forward the Resurgent India Movement aiming to reclaim the lost glory the country once used to busk on. Divyo Jeevan Foundation Trust was another of his cultural units established and chaired by him till the last. Amongst the spiritual organisation he was linked with was the North East Apex Body of Vyakti Vikas Kendra India (Art of Living Foundation) of which he was a former Chairman and Chief Advisor.
Politically he was associated with Congress(I) and had held at different points of time positions such as the Secretary, MPCC(I), General Secretary, North Eastern Congress Coordination Committee and also as Member, All India Congress Committee. He became a Working Committee Member of the Nationalist Congress Party of which he also was one of the key founding members.
In 1993, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) As a member of the Parliament he had served in various Parliamentary Committees that include the Consultative Committee of The Ministry of External Affairs, the Standing Committee of the Ministry of Defence, the Standing Committee of Human Resource Development, Standing Committee of the Ministry of Commerce and Petition Committee of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House). His insightful viewpoints and endearing attitude earned accolades across political spectrum. What perhaps made him standout in sharp difference from many of his ilk is his deep sense of compassion and concern for the general well being of all and sundry. I do not recollect a single instance when invited to any private or public gathering, he failed to ask for arranging food for his accompanying support staff.
A deep understanding of the region and its people gathered over years of experiences and reading made him one of the pioneers to float the idea of opening the region up to the South Asian countries for economic, socio-cultural and commercial activities thus strengthening the nationalist political forces in the north-eastern region in his proactive role as the Founder General Secretary of the North East Pradesh Congress Coordination Committee. The root of the Look East Policy of India, in a way, could be traced in that fore thinking which eventually facilitated the north east to realise its new found significance and the role it is capable of playing to support the cause of national development. He had the heart to do good for people but hardly strived to hog the limelight for himself.
As individuals, we all nurse our own dreams. Dr Dutta had his dreams, but his dreams far more inclusive in nature and wider in vision than most of us are capable of. Indomitable courage to take fresh challenges and a deep love for life had always inspired him to dare and take risks that, to many of us, often bordered on madness. Yet, with a tremendous capacity to persuade, he prevailed over us to be partners in his dream even if that seemed nothing but a utopia to us in the beginning. In the last phase of his life, he was actively dreaming to give shape to his pet project of establishing a quality liberal university in India.
Dr Dutta had departed from this worldly arena on the edge of a time that is undergoing substantial perception reorientation. The institutions he struggled to build are likely to lose their relevance sooner than he thought they actually would. The spirit that inspired him in the struggle would, however, remain ever relevant. It is an angry time that, even if someone deems foolish, tries to hold the bygone largely accountable for all the tribulations that define our present. The calmness of mind and thought is so essential to appreciate that it is not in blaming but in learning from the past that we are likely to find solutions to our predicaments of the present. The seething anger within for the frustrating existential reality of the present may leave us blinded and, therefore, unable to appreciate that the bygone generations too had their limitations and compulsions as we do today. Provided we care to calm our minds and pause a while to ponder over lives like that of Dr Bidhu Bhusan Dutta, we may hope to learn a few things from them that can be of use in mending the present in a meaningful manner.
Dr Debasish Chowdhury: former Princip[al of Women’s College, Shillong, presently the controller of Examination in NEHU, loves to write and was in close association with Sri B B Dutta