Friday, March 11, 2011

The remains of Naxalbari Thu, Mar 10 2011, Live Mint

This one-road village wears no clues to its revolutionary past. Advertisements overshadow faded busts of Mao, Lenin and Charu Majumdar on grounds that once saw a bloody national rebellion

Shamanth Rao

The Siliguri office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), or CPI(M-L), Liberation is a tiny room with big posters of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. One poster exhorts “workers of the world—unite”. Yet another declares “the proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains”.

The low-roofed room’s walls haven’t been painted in a while. There is a rusty table in the centre. There are a couple of trunks by the walls. A weak bulb shines dimly. There are no computers, nor is there any trace of technology. In this single-room office, I wait for Abhijit Majumdar.

I’m in Siliguri in north Bengal en route to the nearby village of Naxalbari, which is the origin of the words Naxal and Naxalite, because it was the location of a 1967 peasant rebellion. I’m visiting Naxalbari to try and understand how a localized rebellion snowballed into a movement with national significance in the 1960s and 1970s.

My host in Siliguri, Prodip Sarkar, has suggested I meet Abhijit, the son of Charu Majumdar, one of the leaders of the 1967 Naxalbari rebellion. Abhijit is also the secretary of the CPI(M-L) Liberation for Darjeeling district in West Bengal.

On one wall of Abhijit’s CPI(M-L) Liberation office is a framed photograph of a wiry, bespectacled, almost malnourished-looking man with the caption “Comrade Charu Majumdar at Lal Bazar Police Headquarters, 1972”. That is the year and location of Majumdar’s death in police custody.

Rather, as Abhijit puts it in an emotionless voice, “That was when my father was murdered by the police.” Abhijit is a suave, articulate man, his sophistication looking oddly out of place in the ramshackle office.

Yet Abhijit’s brand of activism is not quite like his father’s. Charu Majumdar had famously said, “He is not a true Communist who has not dipped his hands in the blood of the class enemy.” Abhijit, as district secretary, has led protests against land acquisition for industries and for farmers’ rights. While these protests have been vocal, they haven’t resulted in anything close to the violence or bloodshed that happened in the Naxal movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Abhijit maintains that the proletariat revolution is inevitable, and class enemies will be overthrown—yet expressions denoting violence or killing are guardedly absent from his talk.

Split within the party

The story of the Naxalbari rebellion is intertwined with the history of communism in India. Far more important than the revolt itself were its chief cause and effect—a rift among Indian Communists and the widespread violence of the Naxal movement, respectively.

During the 1960s, there were ideological disagreements within the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM. Extremist factions of the CPM advocated the armed overthrow of landowners by means of a workers’ and peasants’ revolt. They proposed direct violent action against “petty bourgeoisie” as the only way to change an unjust society, and sought to follow in the footsteps of the Chinese and Russian revolutions.

The Naxalbari rebellion of 1967, then, was a trigger for the extremist factions of Communists to bring their ideologies into the open. When agrarian land issues arose in Naxalbari, extremist Communists saw an opportunity to begin a violent overthrow of landowners.

Naxalbari 1967 was to become the first step in the great Indian proletariat revolution.

A village that has moved on

After a lunch of rice and fish curry, I enter a rattling, ramshackle bus whose conductor loudly advertises “Panitanki-Nepal, Naxalbari”.

The bus’ destination is across the Nepal border, but it is due to pass through Naxalbari on its way. The vibrations of the rickety bus are amplified by the potholed road. Soon, the bus goes past a road to Darjeeling. On the narrow road to Nepal, tea gardens flank the road, rolling away in a green expanse into the horizon.

Naxalbari lies 25km from Siliguri. Right at the entrance to it is a solitary building named “Block Land & Land Reforms Officer”, rather appropriately for a place linked with land struggles. The locked building looks desolate and abandoned on Sunday afternoon.

Naxalbari is a one-road village—nearly all activity centres around this road. Single-room shops line it, selling sweets, cellphones, provisions, computer education and more, with what could be frenetic commercial activity for a place of Naxalbari’s size.

There are no obvious memorials or mentions of the 44-year-old rebellion that made Naxalbari famous. When a place comes with associations attached, as Naxalbari does, it is easy to project one’s own expectations on to it. I expect to see overt signs of the past—signboards narrating stories of the historical incident, or libraries or memorials, but there are none to be readily seen. Naxalbari wears no clues to its past on its shoulder.

It has moved on from 1967.

A retired revolutionary

At Naxalbari, I have to meet Nathuram Biswas, one of the few surviving Naxalite activists from the 1970s. I have been told that the best way to find him would be to “ask anyone in Naxalbari”. With typical city-slicker scepticism, I wonder if that will work. But I get directions from the first man I ask.

Biswas, 60, is a bespectacled, balding man. His face is untouched by the wrinkles of age—my first reaction is that the person in front of me is far too young to be him.

As we talk, and he narrates the story of the revolt, I realize there is considerable blood, violence and grief behind the seemingly innocuous euphemism “peasant revolt”.

A rebellion unfolds

Biswas tells me the spark of the violence in Naxalbari was lit when a landlord, Ishwar Tirkey, ousted a labourer Bighul Kissan from his land in April 1967. Since many leaders of the extremist factions of CPM were from the region, they mobilized thousands of farmers, and laid siege to Tirkey’s farm. Tirkey, though, was politically well connected, and had arrest warrants taken out for the leaders of the farmers’ protests.

The next stone was cast when another landlord faced with a protest, Nagendra Roy Choudhury, took out a gun and fired in the air. Nearly a thousand farmers seized his crops and captured him. Biswas tells me in a matter-of-fact way, without a change in tone, that Choudhury was then tried by a people’s court and promptly executed.

The CPM, which was part of a coalition government in Bengal, was alarmed. The government could neither be seen as condoning the violence, nor disowning fellow comrades who were leading the agitation.

Naxalbari came under unprecedented focus and attention. The then land revenue minister Harekrishna Konar stayed nearby to negotiate with the agitators. Seven ministers came to the area and kept watch. Police and paramilitary forces were employed in huge numbers. Landowners sought special police protection. There was an uneasy calm in Naxalbari.

An uneasy calm is but ammunition awaiting a flame. After one police search operation, word spread that a village leader’s pregnant wife had been attacked. This was all that was needed to ignite the already explosive atmosphere.

In one confrontation with policemen, a protester shot an arrow into the police ranks and killed inspector Sonam Wangdi. Tension escalated, and the police launched ruthless combing operations for leaders of the farmers’ agitation. It was in the hamlet of Bengai Jote near Naxalbari, Biswas tells me with an air of finality, that the event which Naxalbari 1967 is most known for occurred—nine women and two children were shot dead in police firing.

The flame spreads

The extremist factions of the CPM thought the police action and shooting was an act of betrayal, more so since the home minister was fellow comrade Jyoti Basu. They announced that the shooting at Naxalbari was a clarion call for the beginning of the proletariat revolution in India. The extremists decided that violent overthrow of “class enemies” was the only way ahead. The People’s Daily of Beijing declared, “A peal of spring thunder has crashed over the land of India”, giving ideological justification to the activists.

Extremist activists had debated theories of class action and revolution for years. After the Naxalbari shooting, they felt their time had come. CPM had party offices across rural Bengal and Bihar—the party’s extreme factions had local leaders and cadres everywhere. Their influence and grass-roots support became evident in the aftermath of the Naxalbari shooting. The leaders of the extreme factions, in particular Charu Majumdar, attained cult status. The activists named themselves after the place where it all began, and began calling themselves Naxals.

Agitations and protests began fanning across West Bengal and Bihar. Farmers and workers responded to the call of local Communist leaders for class action. Landowners, government officials, everyone perceived to be “class enemies”, began to be annihilated.

It wasn’t just the villages—Kolkata became a hotbed of Naxal activity. Young men and women joined what they were convinced was the cause of revolution. Many dropped out of college, some went to live in the countryside to “sow seeds of revolution among peasants” and become “foot soldiers of revolution”.

Historian Dilip Simeon, now 62, who was an activist in the Naxalite movement, writes in his essay “Rebellion to Reconciliation” (2006) about what made young people join the Naxal movement. “Somehow it felt as if we had no option, that this was like the freedom movement all over again, that if young and committed Indians did not do what was necessary to change the dreadful conditions in which most of our fellow countrymen and women lived, we would be betraying the most precious values of life.”

There was perhaps a sense of historical inevitability, as he adds, “(1968) was the year of the Prague Spring, the Tet offensive by the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, the May uprising by students and workers in France, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Black Power salute by US athletes at the Mexico Olympics.”

It wasn’t easy for young people to go into villages for the sake of revolution. Young people who’d grown up in cities found the rough-and-tumble village life a shock. Many couldn’t cope with the spartan lifestyle. Much of what it was to be young in those tumultuous times is powerfully portrayed in Sudhir Mishra’s heartbreaking film Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, as also in Simeon’s 2010 novel Revolution Highway, about young people involved in the Naxal movement.

As the Naxal movement intensified in violence, the rift in the CPM became official. In 1969, at a rally in Kolkata, Charu Majumdar announced the formation of a new party —the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. The schism was so evident that the official break-up was but a formality.


Biswas and Simeon both dropped out of college to join the Naxal movement, albeit in different circumstances and places. Biswas took his first step in 1968 after he read an essay by Charu Majumdar exhorting students to spend a summer vacation among the rural poor in villages. Simeon was a student at St Stephen’s, New Delhi, when he went on a trip with the college’s Social Service League to famine-hit Palamau in present-day Jharkhand. This was his first step.

It wasn’t difficult to quit college, Biswas tells me, because he was clear he didn’t want “bourgeoisie education”. Simeon tells me on email about his decision to leave the security of college life and career prospects: “Most of us didn’t think about the long term, and of what we would be doing after 10 years—the passions of the moment were enough to carry us. The revolution would have been accomplished by then—if we bothered to think about time at all.”

I ask Biswas if it was easy to kill or engage in violence for the first time. He smiles and says, half-jokingly, “My leaders said that if I didn’t take part in ‘action’ in a week’s time, that’d mean I’m petty bourgeoisie.” He adds that having seen the villages and empathized with peasants’ conditions, it wasn’t so difficult to go out there and engage in “action” for their sake.

“Once you’ve been involved in action,” Biswas shrugs his shoulders, “you have no choice but to go underground.” It was not like he had to stay in jungles, he adds—underground activists stayed in sympathizers’ houses. He stayed for sometime in Nepal, and for some time in Bangladesh.

Today, Biswas is a businessman, owning a cellphone and a furniture shop—both ironically capitalist establishments. He’s still a member of the CPI(M-L) Liberation, and has led farmers’ protests in the last few years.

Simeon works with Aman Trust, which seeks to mitigate the effects of violent conflict.

The waning

Naxal activists defined “class enemies” rather broadly. Government employees, judges and a vice-chancellor were among those killed in Kolkata in “class action”. At the height of the movement, traffic policemen were stabbed on the streets of Kolkata.

Police reprisal was brutal. The government of West Bengal gave wide-ranging powers to the police. Naxals were picked up from houses, horrific tales of police torture spread, encounters became commonplace. The death blow for the movement came, though, when the police started to pick on the leaders of the movement—Charu Majumdar was killed in police custody, Saroj Dutta was killed in an encounter.

The ideological basis of the revolution was gradually eroding too. China backed the Pakistan army’s crackdown in East Pakistan, China and the then USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) supported the quelling of the JVP (People’s Liberation Front) insurrection in Sri Lanka, Mao engaged in a dialogue with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger even as the Vietnam war continued. As Simeon puts it, “From 1971 onwards it became clear that the cut and dried formulations of Indian Maoism would not work.” China, whose revolution the Indian Maoists aspired to inherit, was itself veering off the path of Marxism and being opportunist.

This ideological confusion showed not only among the young activists, but also in the party lines. The CPI(M-L) Liberation split into more than 30 factions during the 1970s, torn apart by ideological differences.

By the mid-1970s, what was to have been the Indian proletariat revolution had all but collapsed.

The remnants

Biswas introduces a middle-aged man as Comrade Manik, adding, “He’ll show you Shaheed.” The Shaheed Vedi is 2km from the Naxalbari bus stand. This is the only memorial in the place. This is where the nine women and two children were shot in 1967.

I take a cycle rickshaw that stumbles over stony, unpaved roads to Bengai Jote, where the memorial is situated. Bengai Jote is a single-road village too, but unlike Naxalbari, this road hardly has vehicular traffic. Right behind the row of huts with bamboo compound walls is a railway track on one side and a stream on the other. Beyond the houses, at the far end of town, is the Bengai Jote primary school, a small building with a couple of rooms.

Beside the school’s closed gates is a small clearing. The lawn is untrimmed and has a stubble and undergrowth, there’s dust and bits of paper strewn about—it clearly hasn’t been cleaned in a while. There are four busts—of Mao, Lenin, Charu Majumdar and Lin Biao. These busts haven’t been painted or cleaned in a long time. There’s a faded red board announcing through flaking-off paint that this is the “Tiananmen square of India”.

A river twists its way through the fields behind the memorial, quietly gurgling past. In an open field in front of it, children run about, playing without a care. Tiny shops in the lane leading up to the memorial unfurl cloth banners advertising Vodafone, Maaza and Hero Cycles.

Acknowledgements: Prodip Sarkar, Bibek Sarkar, Abhijit Majumdar (all in Siliguri), Nathuram Biswas (in Naxalbari), Dilip Simeon, Sourabh Datta Gupta.

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