Naxalbari put armed struggle onto the agenda of Indian revolution and since then, the Indian political scene has never remained the same. Naxalbari took place at a time when not only were the Indian masses getting disillusioned by the twenty years of fake independence, but, at a time, when the entire world was in turmoil
The drive down from Siliguri to Naxalbari on the National Highway 31 is between the verdant tea estates with rows and rows of men and women plucking leaves and singing. At the base of cloud-kissed hills, these tea gardens are home to the famous Darjeeling brew. The leaves are processed in local factories before traveling around the world, but this serene, picturesque setting hides the history of a violent revolution, the incubator of India’s epic class war that still kills more than 5,000 people every year.
I was visiting Naxalbari to try and understand the turbulent times that influenced the course of peasant struggle in modern India after a localised rebellion snowballed into a movement with national significance in the decade of 1967-77. As one approaches Naxalbari, the sleepy, nondescript small town, it is difficult not to feel overawed. This is the place which is the origin of the words Naxals and Naxalite.
Most tea estates on the route are owned by Kolkata-based fat cat Marwaris who are doing to tea what they did to jute: suck out every paisa without investing a penny. Nothing is spent on replantation; estates here have tea plants which are 90-years old. Labour rights exist only on paper. Factories and tea processing units are fifty years old. Minimum wages are not paid. Provident funds are fictional. It is a common practice to sack workers before they complete five years on an estate, because that makes them eligible for gratuity. The song of the tea pluckers is actually a dirge.
On entering the town, no statue of any rebel greets you, but a statue of Kargil martyr Suresh Chhetri and a Lion’s Club signboard welcomes visitors. I saw a solitary building named “Block Land & Land Reforms Officer”, rather appropriately for a place linked with land struggles. No incident actually took place at Naxalbari on May 25, 1967. The firing on rural poor took place in Prasadujot, a small village further towards the border town of Panitanki. There had been clashes and tensions in the area since March that year, on May 24, 1967, a police official was killed by a tribal arrow. Next day a huge contingent of police fired on unarmed people killing eleven of them, which included eight women and two infants.
As I enter Naxalbari town and make my way towards Prasadujot, I didn’t see a single flag or office of any Marxist-Leninist group. There are flags of the CPM, Congress, TMC and BJP; remnants of the just concluded parliamentary elections. The only red plastering the walls are the advertisements of Airtel, Vodafone, Wai-Wai Noodles and Supreme Plastic chairs. No slogans that read “Aamar Naam Tomar Naam-Vietnam Vietnam” or “Bonduk’er nol khomotaa’r utsa!” (Power flows from the barrel of a gun) and “China’r chairman amaader chairman” (China’s chairman is our chairman—a reference to Mao Tse Tung). During the uprising, groups of young men and women would set out each night from their homes, armed with paint and brushes, to scrawl revolutionary messages on every available wall.
The students of the Benguijote Prathamik Vidayalaya crowded around me at the Sahid Peeth for a photograph. It couldn’t be more ironical. Barely 10 yards from their classroom, just outside the small boundary wall is the bust of Naxalite leader and ideologue Charu Mazumdar along with Comrades Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Lin Pao and Saroj Dutta. Their teacher, Mahadev Pal, at my insistence, asked them who Charu Majumdar was. None of them could reply. Not even when asked about Kanu Sanyal, or Mao and Stalin. Beside the statues was a plaque put up in the memory of 11 martyrs, including six women and two children, who were killed in the police firing on May 25, 1967. Old-timers insist that the Naxalbari peasant uprising wasn’t an event but a process that started back in the early 1950s. But that day Naxalbari exploded into the national consciousness. And in a few years, Naxal became synonymous with any Red extremist evoking fear among landlords and policemen alike.
Kanu Sanyal The Red Mahatma
The thatched mud hut in Hathighisa village had been given a fresh coat. A wooden bench and a small iron stool were outside the single locked door. There was a faded red flag flying on the flag post outside the hut. I peered through the small window, and could see the large poster of Kanu Sanyal put up below the framed black and white portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao that hung on the mud wall. Shanti Munda arrived with the keys and opened the door. It was in this hut that Kanu Sanyal had hung himself from the roof beam on the March 23, 2010. Incidentally it was on this date that noted Indian revolutionary freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were executed way back in 1931.
Inside were his few possessions, books, clothes and utensils. On the floor covered with reed mats and plain hand-woven local rugs, was an old manual typewriter. It was jammed up. I opened the case; his spectacles were lying neatly on top of the typewriter. Kanu Sanyal must have belted off so many petitions for the poor on this ancient machine. There were a few framed photos of his and a few comrades on the far wall. His files and books lay stacked on one corner. His few utensils, bedding and papers were stacked on a folding bed, which was crumbling under the weight. The small time piece had stopped at 4 O’clock. The old black and white TV had not worked in years. I extracted a small booklet titled “The Programme of Indian Revolution and the Path of Indian Revolution” from the stack. The almirah where his two sets of clothes were kept could not be opened, the door had jammed. There was an all pervading sense of despair in the whole scenario.
Kanu Sanyal was one of the rare politicians, not only in India but in the world, who sacrificed his entire life for the cause of the poor and oppressed. He did not marry and lived a spartan life amidst the impoverished and exploited Adivasi tea workers and farmers, whose cause he used to champion. Sharing the same underprivileged life of his people, he lived in a humble one-room mud-hut that was also his party office and commune. In the recently released book, “The First Naxal”, author Bappaditya Paul compares him with Mahatma Gandhi, calling the Naxalite leader “one of the very few Indians whose life was a message in itself”. In one corner there were a few rolled up red banners and placards. Shanti Munda picked up the placard and posed for me in front of Kanu Sanyal’s poster.
The frail 72-year-old undisputed leader of the Naxalbari uprising was ailing after a brain hemorrhage and had become too feeble to move outside his home. Although he was sick, he never took treatment from any government hospital. His argument was he could not approach the state when he was fighting it.
The reason behind his suicide remains an enigma. None of reasons that were given out (physical ill-health, shortage of money, distress at the state of the Maoist movement) sound convincing. Perhaps he had simply lost his mental balance. Such was Kanu Sanyal’s radicalism. Did he take the extreme step because he could not bear the pain of his diseases anymore? Was he depressed and frustrated by the current form of revolutionary extremism in the country? We can speculate whatever we like but the real truth will never be known. Even in death, Kanu Sanyal was trying to send a message to society.
He was a man who once upon a time shook the ruling oligarchy of their deep slumbers, who had capacity to galvanise millions of people. As a young man, his words would make blood boil; people were ready to lay down their lives for the cause he espoused. In the 60-year long political career, he spent eight years underground and 16 years behind bars. Few revolutionaries lived as humble and transparent a life as Kanu Sanyal.
Among the Indian Naxalites, Kanu Sanyal was the only one to have met Chairman Mao. While he was underground from 1969 to 1972, he went to China for three months in September 1967. He led a small group to Kathmandu from where the Chinese took them by jeep to Beijing. On the way they stopped at Tibet. He reached China on 30th September and saw the celebrations of the National Day on 1st October. He had seen people weeping after seeing Mao.
‘Mao-er shongey amaar dekha holo’, he later recalled. After talking to Mao, and discussing the situation in India, Sanyal became even more convinced that path way was not correct. Mao told to him about how the movement began in China, with only 150 muzzle-loaded rifles. But they worked among the people, built up popular support. He told Sanyal, “You won’t need help from anyone outside if you have popular support”. Mao’s also advised them that whatever they had learnt from their China trip should be forgotten. “Go to your own country, try to understand the specific situation and carry the revolution forward” Mao said.
It was he along with Jangal Santal who led the uprising in 1967 which swept across India like a prairie fire. In the villages, armed groups began attacking jotedars, killing and maiming ‘class enemies’. During the early years of the Naxalite movement, it was he who spread the awareness among the poor farmers to demand their rights. The trigger for the whole movement was the terror unleashed by two elephants belonging to the jotedars (landowners). They would damage the crops of the poor farmers and wreak havoc in the hamlets. The farmers came to Sanyal and complained that the jotedars were not listening to them, he told them to kill the elephants and they followed his order. This act gave birth to a peasants’ uprising. Afterwards, recalled Sanyal, he told himself, if killing two elephants can lead to this, what will happen if we eradicated the so-called flesh-eating exploiters of the society.
Kanu Sanyal was arrested in 1970 and convicted in the Parvatipuram conspiracy case. He spent seven years in various jails in Bengal and in Andhra Pradesh. Jyoti Basu personally saw to it that Sanyal was released when the Left Front came to power in Bengal in 1977.
After his release from Visakhapatnam jail, Sanyal took the initiative to form the Organizing Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (OCCR) to assimilate splinter Naxal groups. By then, and more since Charu Majumdar’s death in 1972, he had disowned violence, opting for parliamentary democracy. In 1985, OCCR merged with the Communist Organisation of India (Marxist-Leninist). In June 2003 he formed a new CPI (ML) and kept his political activities confined in north Bengal region. He organised unions in nearby tea estates. A peaceful Naxalite was an oxymoron. Sanyal no longer believed in violence. He was no more the leader who had inspired at one time countless young men and women in the country to take up arms against the state. Taking up local issues, he continued working quietly among the peasants and tea garden trade unions. He remained a severe critic of the Left Front government’s industrialisation policy as he felt that the policy would only benefit the imperialists. He had also firmly voiced his opposition to the land acquisition methods in Singur and Nandigram.
Indeed, when one looks back, Sanyal was blamed for the killings of a large number of bright young men and women who took to Maoist ideology in the 60s and 70s. They were a part of the movement that attempted revolution through violence, but what is happening today in the name of democratic process is far more cruel and gruesome.
Did the peasants’ war in Naxalbari solve anything? Yes, it did. The struggle did not go in vain. A lot of development has happened since then. Everyone now has land to his name now. The landowners would cower in fright, the tea estates paid the workers on time. The peasants now knew their rights.
There are many Communists who once swam along the undeniable current of the Naxalbari insurrection but resultant to the state repression, returned to the fold of their comfortable middleclass life. But Kanu Sanyal was an extraordinary Communist. He was a rebel who never came back home.
On Sanyal’s death, the then Minister of state in MEA, Shashi Tharoor had tweeted that “his life was a failure, he changed nothing”. Yes, Sanyal was a failed ideologue. At the time of his death he had no home, no bank account, he was penniless, sick and ailing, and definitely he failed. Compared to the Congress leaders, with Swiss bank accounts, huge properties, shares in IPL teams and big corporates, he did fail. (AD)
That was then, this was now. Forty seven years after the peasant insurrection, Naxalbari still evokes images of peasants and tea garden workers up in rebellion. For the radical Red groups of different shades, including the Maoists, it is still an emblem and an idea that inspires. But in the villages around Naxalbari revolution is a yesterday word. Today, Naxalbari is more like a town than a village, and is no longer deprived. It has roads, schools, even a college. But at that time, in 1967, it was a village, where a tribal youth named Bimal Kisan obtained a judicial order to plough his land. However, he was attacked by the landlord and his hoodlums. From March to May 1967, tension escalated on questions of tribal access to land.
Naxalbari put armed struggle onto the agenda of Indian revolution and since then, the Indian political scene has never remained the same. Naxalbari took place at a time when not only were the Indian masses getting disillusioned by the twenty years of fake independence, but, at a time, when the entire world was in turmoil. Small countries like Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea were striking major blows at the might of the US Army; national liberation movements were surging forward in a number of underdeveloped countries; in Europe and America massive anti-imperialist demonstrations against the US involvement in Vietnam merged with a violent outburst of the black and women’s movement. Naxalbari was a product and a part of this ideological-political ferment taking place throughout the globe.
Two years later, in 1969, the CPI (ML) was formally launched at a huge rally on Lenin’s birth anniversary. Addressing the crowd, Kanu Sanyal compared Charu Mazumdar with Mao and urged people to join the armed struggle. It was a passionate call to revolt against the ‘bourgeois system’ which saw a surge in targeted killing of policemen, jotedars and petty traders. Mazumdar focused on individual killings in the name of annihilation of ‘class enemies’ while Sanyal’s focus was on claiming land for peasants. Charu Mazumdar was an ideologue, Sanyal a leader of the unwashed masses. Mazumdar leaned on the gun, opposing elections and other democratic means, while Sanyal was not against elections, just disinterested in democratic processes that had failed to give the poor basic rights.
The Naxalbari insurrection had made China’s People’s Daily go orgiastic in its July 5, 1967 editorial. “A peal of spring thunder has crashed over the land of India. Under the leadership of a revolutionary group of the Indian Communist Party, a red area of rural revolutionary armed struggle has been established in India…The spark in Darjeeling will start a prairie fire and will certainly set the vast expanses of India ablaze.”
The cream of India’s youth and students joined the Naxalbari movement. While politicians were busy playing the politics of power and amassing personal wealth, young revolutionaries were sacrificing everything—studies, wealth, families—to serve the oppressed masses. Displaying death-defying courage, withstanding enemy bullets and inhuman tortures, facing hardships of rural life, thousands of youth integrated with the landless and poor peasants and aroused them for revolution. Pipe guns and bombs were the mainstay of the Naxalites’ arsenal; the occasional. 303 looted from a hapless constable added to their firepower.
I found him at his shop in the main bazar of Naxalbari. This short bespectacled and balding man looked for too young to be one of the original Naxalites. His was the biggest shop selling furniture, moulded plastic chair, almirahs etc in the market. Nathuram Biswas is one of the few surviving Naxalite activists from the 1970s. Today, this reformed Naxal is a fairly prosperous businessman, but is still a card holding member of the CPI (M-L) Liberation, and goes to rallies and farmers’ protests.
He is uncomfortable to talk, avoiding the direct questions. He dropped out of college in 1968 to join the movement after an essay by Charu Majumdar in which he exhorted students to spend a summer vacation among the rural poor in villages. It wasn’t difficult to quit college, Biswas tells me, because he was clear he didn’t want “bourgeoisie education”. He went to the villages and saw the conditions of the peasants, after that it was not difficult to go out there and engage in “action” for their sake.
Biswas was one of the moderate Naxals; he shied away from questions about his involvement in violent activities. He says that as he was very young, he was not sent out for direct action, rather he worked in the logistics and propaganda department. His activities were soon under the scanner and he had to go underground. “Once you’ve been involved in action,” Biswas shrugs his shoulders, “you have no choice but to go underground.” However life was not tough, he did not have to stay in jungles or the hills. He spent seven years in Nepal and for some time in Bangladesh. He worked in the underground printing presses, churning out pamphlets, posters and revolutionary booklets. He surfaced after Kanu Sanyal was released, but did not continue because he was disillusioned with the split in the movement. He is mum when asked about Kanu Sanyal’s suicide. When I questioned him if he would he do it all over again, he replied “Why not? We fought for a cause, not for ourselves”. I have doubts if Nathuram would ever take up arms again. It is truly amazing to see how many revolutionaries are historically clueless intellectual totalitarians, regardless of whether they are socialist, communist, democratic, religious, or secular revolutionaries. (AD)
The brutal methods of the Naxalites in killing landlords and their supporters created fear among locals. Villagers refused to cooperate with the police in combing out the radicals, and many landowners fled out of fear. Soon swathes of land were becoming “liberated zones”, where it was impossible for the police to know who is a guerrilla and who is not, and who was tilling his own land and who tilled that of the jotedars [feudal landowners]. 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, even traffic policemen were stabbed on the streets of Kolkata.
University campuses in Bengal were turning into hotbeds of revolutionary politics. During the 1967-70 years, the prestigious Presidency College and Hindu Hostel had become the nerve centre for Maoist politics. In Andhra Pradesh it was the students of Guntur Medical College who were the first to come out in support of Naxalbari and form the Naxalbari Solidarity Committee. In Punjab, Bihar, UP, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and even amongst the Campuses of Delhi and Bombay, thousands of youth were attracted to Maoism and the politics of Naxalbari. Youth, with ideals, at last found a meaning to their lives after total disgust with the deceit, corruption, greed and unprincipled opportunism that pervaded parliamentary politics. Naxalbari symbolised to this youth a new future of justice, truth, equality, humanity and self-respect for the downtrodden. It was during this period that the police introduced the method of ‘encounter’ killings.
Till a couple of years ago, he would sit behind the counter of his son’s momo shop in Naxalbari bazaar. Even today, in the sunset of his lives, he believes that the movement has not failed; it gave deliverance to the oppressed. It would have delivered much more if it had not suffered because of “internal fighting” and a splintered existence.
Mujibur Raheman told me that he was 105 years old. I called on him at his house in Uttar Katiajote in Naxalbari. The years of struggle and time spent underground or in jail have not dampened his spirit. Age has not crippled his revolutionary zeal. The old man recounted tales from his flaming past. “There was a reward of fifty thousand rupees on my head, dead or alive. Even then, I would roam around fearlessly. No police or CRPF would dare touch me. Once I came out of the forest with pistols in both my hands, I fired away, the policemen scurried off.” He still swears by Charu Mazumdar although he is silent when I ask him about Kanu Sanyal. He told me of the days spent underground; he went off to East Pakistan and Nepal.
Rahman had joined the Communist Party after being released from Dhaka jail in 1942. He tells that both Soumen Tagore and Jai Prakash Narayan had come to join the Communist Party. They asked what posts they would get, they were looking for posts when all were equal in the Communist party. Tagore started his own radical organization and Jai Prakash Narayan started his Socialist Party.
A Naxalite dreaded by the government in his time, shows occasional flashes of the old fire, but is a shadow of his former self. He admitted having killed many ‘class enemies’ himself, but now admitted that the annihilations should not have happened. “Those of us who had started the movement are almost over, old and dying now, today’s movement is internally divided,” he said. (AD)
Staged encounters became the norm in the 1970-71 period. In all the struggle areas the police would pick up young men and women in the age-group 17 to 25, suspected to have links with the Maoist movement and subject them to brutal torture. The purpose of torture was not just to extract information, but to break their will, destroy their self-respect, so that they do not challenge the system and the established status quo. In 1969-70, the government had pressed into service not only the reserve police forces, but also the paramilitary and even the army. By 1971, most of the Naxalbari-type uprisings had been cruelly crushed.
In the 1971-72 period, hundreds of youth of Kolkata were systematically shot dead by the Congress-led vigilante squads. These killer squads were led by the Congress leaders like Priya Ranjandas Munshi, and put into action according to a plan hatched by the Chief Minister Siddarth Shankar Ray and police chief Ranjit Guha. In August 1971, the Congress hoodlums joined hands with the CPI (M) cadre to massacre hundreds of Maoists in the Baranagar and Howrah areas of Calcutta. The most infamous was the Cassipore-Baranagar massacre. Armed goons of the Congress together with CPI (M) activists conducted house to house searches, raping women, burning houses and beating up youth with any known sympathy for the Maoists. Young boys were murdered; the elderly were doused with kerosene and burnt to death. In this period, over 10,000 Maoists and their sympathisers were killed, most of the leadership had been decimated and thousands more were languishing in jails. Two central committee members, Saroj Datta and Appu just ‘disappeared’. Charu Mazumdar, the ailing leader of the movement still evaded arrest. He, along with Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santal, were the most wanted men by the Indian government.
Jangal Santal: The Tribal For Whom The Spring Never Came
There is no pillar in memory of Jangal Santhal, or proper dates of his birth or death. He was one of the trinity who formed the Naxal rebellion. I tried hard to get a photograph of him but could not do so. Jangal was a well-respected figure in the Santhal tribal areas of Darjeeling district. He was part of the Peasants Council held on May 18, 1967 that had resolved to re-distribute the land to the sharecroppers through armed struggle. He was among the crowd which had ambushed Inspector Sonam Wangdi and killed him with arrows after which the violent Naxalite movement was born.
Jangal Santhal remained underground for years. He was one of the most wanted men. Such was his might that he was revered by even by the police. There are epic tales about him that still reverberate in the tribal and rural interiors in Bengal, and in the historical narratives of the uprising. Stories about his great rebellion, torture and imprisonment, and tragedy and pain, is scattered all over the place. Jangal was eventually arrested. In the sixties, the by lanes of Kolkata and the paddy fields of Naxalbari echoed the slogan “Jail ka tala tootega/Kanu, Jangal chhootega (the locks of prison will break, Kanu and Jangal Santhal will be freed).
After the Naxalite threat disappeared, he was released in 1979, but found himself isolated. After coming out of jail, frustrated, tragic and lonely, Jangal Santhal became addicted to alcohol. He married four times, bought a car and tried to come to terms with life. By the time Sanyal came out, it was too late. Sanyal tried his best but he just could not discipline his comrade; his drinking habits and acute depression did not go away. Santhal was hospitalised in Siliguri. He compelled the doctors to discharge him despite the warning that he could die. Locals say that he came back to the village and drank himself to death, perhaps that very night.
Jangal Santhal passed away in 1987—he spent his last few days as an incurable alcoholic. I was told that one of his wives still lived in a small hut near Kanu Sanyal’s hut. I found her, old and wizened, she had nothing to say. In his novel, Mahakaler Rather Ghora, Samaresh Babu has described Jangal Sanyal as a tribal hero. Kanu Sanyal had himself admitted that he was only an organiser, Charu was the ideas man, but Santhal was the one who executed the plans. Till the end, Jangal was full of hope, convinced that he would see his country change for the better. But he found a certain dignity in opting out of the situation, realising that he had reached a dead end. (AD)
On July 16, 1972, Charu Mazumdar was arrested from a shelter in Calcutta. At the time of his arrest he was seriously sick with cardiac asthma. During his ten days in police custody no one was allowed to see him—not even his lawyer, family members nor a doctor. At 4.00 A.M. on July 28, 1972 Charu Mazumdar died in the police lock-up. Even the dead body was not given to the family.
During the Telangana uprising in 1950, the Nehru government had murdered thousands of tribals and hung communists along the trees leading to the villages. The same Nehru treated the ‘communists’ as his closest associates once they entered the Parliament just two years later. Nasser, while on a visit to India, exclaimed in shocked surprise at the freedom communists had, and chidingly told Nehru “we put all communists into prison.” Nehru smilingly replied “it is much the same, you keep them in prison, we in Parliament—in both, they become harmless.”
Most of the radical Reds of Naxalbari were now septuagenarians. A young CPI(ML) worker is a rarity. There are more Marxist-Leninist parties: Janashakthi, Kanu Sanyal group, Mahdadeb Mukherjee group, to name a few—than cadre. In the local Subroti Sana library, there is not even a single book on the 1967 rural uprising, although dozens were written both in Bengali and English. For the youth of Naxalbari, the uprising rarely figures in their conversations. They remember it primarily because May 25 is celebrated as an annual ritual with politicians swooping down from Kolkata. For them, the Naxalbari uprising is a story; not a way of life.
In the Ramayana, Dandakaranya, the forest of Dandaka, is where Lord Ram settled down for his 14 years in exile before reclaiming the throne of Ayodhya. Today’s Dandakaranya covers an area of nearly 92,000 sq. kms spread over Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Maharashtra. It is now the home of the new age Naxalites, now called Maoists.
By Anil Dhir from Naxalbari