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Siddhartha Shankar Ray, aristocrat Bengali politician

Like his grandfather before him, the legendary Chittaranjan Das, who played a major role in the Indian independence movement, he was both a barrister and politician.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray was a colourful personality not only in West Bengal's politics but also on the national stage.
Siddhartha Shankar Ray was a colourful personality not only in West Bengal's politics but also on the national stage.

Like his grandfather before him, the legendary Chittaranjan Das, who played a major role in the Indian independence movement, Siddhartha Shankar Ray was both a barrister and politician. If he attracted some controversy in the latter profession, in the former he was an exemplary practitioner of law whose forensic knowledge of India's constitution, combined with an amiable and witty manner in court, contributed to his solid reputation. When the political arena became too heated, he could always fall back upon his first profession and be guaranteed success, as after the declaration of the state of emergency in India in the 1970s.

Considered to be one of West Bengal's last aristocratic politicians, who brought the state closer to New Delhi - and later, India closer to the United States in his capacity as ambassador - he was responsible for the resettlement of thousands of refugees who entered the state during the Bangladesh war, and brought India's first subway, the Metro Railway, to Kolkata.

After studying at St Xavier's School and Presidency College, he trained at London's Inner Temple. Returning home, he enrolled in the high court in 1946. Handpicked as law minister by West Bengal's chief minister, Bidhan Chandra Roy ,in 1957, he rose to prominence as the main adviser to the prime minister, Indira Gandhi. In 1967, he became union education minister.

In 1972, he was appointed chief minister of West Bengal. His first, immediate challenge was to subdue an uprising by the Naxalites, Maoist communists who advocated the overthrow of the government and upper classes by peasants and lower-class tribal groups. Although Ray later admitted that his government had failed to pay due attention to the development of tribal areas, which led to the rebellion, he denied that he had sanctioned the worst excesses of the brutal suppression of the rebels. The rebels were indeed not dealt with lightly. Widespread accusations of abuses by police and the murder of youths in suspicious circumstances pursued Ray for the rest of his career.

One of the intimate circle of advisers present at the house of Debakanta Barua, the general secretary of Indian National Congress, when Gandhi declared a nationwide state of emergency, Ray was alleged by some to have drafted a letter for the then president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, to issue the emergency proclamation. Under the emergency, fundamental rights were suspended and press censorship imposed. The measures cost the Congress Party dearly and for a while Ray was lost in the political wilderness. He turned against Gandhi and stood for the party presidency but failed.

In the late 1970s, the political world was enlivened by the verbal duelling between Ray and his personal friend but political foe, Jyoti Basu. Basu succeeded Ray as chief minister of West Bengal, serving from 1977 to 2000 and was a confirmed Marxist whereas Ray was a committed anti-communist.

After Gandhi's assassination in 1984, Ray returned to politics. Appointed governor in 1986, he yet again faced an uprising, this time by the Khalistan movement, a collective of Sikhs agitating for a homeland in the Punjab region. With the backing of K P S Gill, who took over as Punjab police director general in 1988, Ray succeeded in considerably undermining the militants.

In 1992, he was named India's envoy to Washington. He served four years and was credited with putting Indo-US business on the agenda.

A keen sportsman, Ray was a triple blue of Calcutta University, representing his alma mater in cricket, tennis and football. President of the Cricket Association of Bengal from 1981 to 1986, he was also the hero in all cricket and tennis matches organised by the Bar Library.

He is survived by his wife, Maya.

Born October 12, 1920. Died November 6, 2010.

* The National