Red is the Colour of the Poor

Sumanta Banerjee looks into the Naxalbari Uprising in India

[Sumanta Banerjee (b. 1936), political and civil rights activist and social scientist, moved to the revolutionary position of the Naxalbari peasants' upsurge in the north-eastern India while working as a journalist for The Statesman in the late sixties, and joined the movement in 1973. He had to resort to underground life while carrying on his revolutionary tasks in rural and industrial areas, Srikakulam forests and hills, and Kolkata slums. As an active participant in the toilers' political struggle armed with Marxism-Leninism-Mao Thought he had the opportunity to know the movement closely from his work with comrades from grassroots and a part of leadership, and working with Liberation, the clandestine English organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Sumanta Banerjee, author of In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (Subarnarekha, Kolkata, 1980), Marxism and the Indian Left: From "Interpreting" to "Changing" It (Purbalok Publication, Kolkata, 2012), The Parlour and the Street: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and Logic in a Popular Form (2002), regularly contributes to The Economic and Political Weekly published from Mumbai. He is also editor of Thema Book of Naxalite Poetry (1987). This interview was conducted in late-September-early-October, 2017 by Farooque Chowdhury. Excerpts:]

Question 1: What was the most memorable moment during your revolutionary political work among the peasantry in the 1970s?
Answer: There were many memorable moments. But the one, which still remains etched in my memory was a late-afternoon at a hillock in the forests of Srikakulam (in Andhra Pradesh) some time in 1974. By then, the Naxalite "liberated zones" had been crushed by the police in Srikakulam, which Charu Mazumdar once described as the "Yenan of India". But the survivors of the Naxalite peasant uprising, mainly from the Girijan tribal community, were still there, trying to pick up the old threads and revive the movement. It was one such Girijan family, which gave shelter to me and another comrade of mine, when we went there to revive old links and explore possibilities of renewing the movement. On that afternoon, we gathered at the hillock with our Girijan comrades to discuss the strategy. All of a sudden, we heard voices of children singing a song, to the accompaniment of sounds of banging on household steel pots. It began with the Telegu words: Erupante kondariki. Our Girijan comrades translated the rest of the song, which ran as follows:
Whenever the word Red is uttered,
Some faces become black.
We children are better than them.
The flowers carried by nature are Red.
The vermilion mark on the forehead of the girls
Shines Red.
The color Red is of the poor,
It's the color of the masses.

I asked my Girijan comrades: Who composed that song? They pointed out at a distant hillock, and said: "That's the spot where he was killed. He was Subbarao Panigrahi."

A rush of memories overwhelmed me. In the Naxalite movement, we had grown up with Subbarao Panigrahi's song: We are Communists, which was translated into different Indian languages, and became the marching song of Naxalite fighters all over the country. Subbarao was captured and shot dead along with his comrades by the police in the hills of Srikakulam in December 1969. He was just 35 years old. And, here I was standing looking at the spot of his martyrdom.

Q 2: What was the happiest moment in your revolutionary political work during the period?
Answer : There couldn't be any "happiest moment" in the course of a political work that faced police repression, which killed some of my dearest comrades. But there were happy moments—in the underground life, and later in jail—when me and my comrades sang songs that roused our dream of liberation from an oppressive system. I remember, in Burdwan jail in 1975, at night (after we were locked up in our cells), our peasant comrade Nitya Sen used to sing out our favorite song from his cell, which reverberated across the jail walls, and reached out to all the prisoners:
Mukto habey priyo matribhumi/ Sedin sudoor noy aar….Uthbe geye muktir gaan/ Jug jug nipeerito major-kishan… (Our motherland will be liberated/ It's not far behind…The song of liberation will be sung by the workers and peasants who had been oppressed all these years).

It can be dismissed by cynics today as a futile dream. But it was a happy dream, which I'll always cherish.

Q 3: Shall you, please, cite the saddest moment in your revolutionary work?
Answer : The first sad moment was in 1974. I was in the underground, and heard of the killing of Jaydeb—a dear comrade of mine—by the police. The second was in 1975. I was in Burdwan jail, and received news of the killing of Subrata Dutta (popularly known as Jwahar among the Bihar peasantry), a leader of the movement in Bhojpur in Bihar. On November 29 that year, his hideout was raided by the police and he was shot dead. At that time, when the news reached us, Jwahar's father, Satyabrata Dutta (a veteran journalist, who had resigned from the Hindustan Times, a national English daily, and joined our movement) was in Burdwan jail with us. We watched him how he remained steadfast all through that ordeal, without breaking down for a moment, without even having the chance of a last look at his son. It was a sad moment, but, at the same time, a courageous moment.

Q 4: How you and your comrades used to organize the peasantry or what was your method of work in the rural areas?
Answer : I cannot answer this question to your satisfaction, since I wasn't active in organizing the peasantry in the areas where I was deputed by the party. My assignment was mainly to translate reports from the ground level (sent by our activist-comrades from different areas), for publication in Liberation, our English organ published clandestinely. Incidentally, some of these issues of Liberation were surreptitiously printed in the press of The Statesman, a national English daily, where I worked from 1967 till 1973 in Calcutta [now, Kolkata], and later in New Delhi. Jayanta Das Gupta, one of our comrades, was working in The Statesman printing press in those days. (Jayanta Das Gupta passed away some years ago.) He, after the printing press was shuttered down for the day, opened it up for type- setting of the articles of Liberation with the help of a few other comrades.

Q 5: How do you now identify the working method followed during the period: (a) completely conspiratorial and devoid of mass line, or (b) completely dependent on annihilation of class enemies, or (c) following mass line and attempting to reach the masses, or (d) admixture of both the conspiratorial and mass lines, or (e) not easily identifiable within an only black and white frame?
Answer : I'd like to reframe the words of the method suggested in (d). It should be a flexible method of combining both armed resistance and mass movement—at various levels of our multi-layered society. For example, the Maoists must intervene and employ their armed squads to resist the armed goons of the Sangh Parivar, whenever the latter lynch poor Muslims and Dalits in different parts of the country. They will be able to expand their base among these oppressed sections by providing protection to them. Similarly, by joining non-violent social movements like the anti-dam and anti-POSCO agitations, they will have a space for propagating their political views (but should eschew the usual Stalinist temptation of hege-monizing over these movements), and should also humbly learn from the experiences of these mass movements, that may help them to modify their old strategy and tactics, that remain trapped in a time-wrap of Maoism of China in the 1920-30 period.

Q 6: What's your observation regarding work among the peasantry during the period: borrowing from Mao, politics commanded gun or the opposite? Or, work was not to that level where gun could command? And, shall you please cite a few incidents, which show the poor peasantry's ingenuity in areas of organizational and political work, and bravery and sacrifice? Or, do you think there was no space where the poor peasantry could show ingenuity in those areas because of the method of work, or because of bureaucratism, commandism?
Answer :I'd request you to look up my essay "Reflections of a one-time Maoist Activist" in the book Windows into Revolution (eds. Alpa Shah and Judith Pettigrew, Orient Blackswan and Social Science Press, New Delhi, 2012). I have addressed the two questions in that essay.

Q 7: How you and your comrades used to conduct publicity, political and ideological work? What were the difficulties you were facing in the rural areas as you with urban, middle class background went to live among the poor peasantry, and were conducting revolutionary work among them? And, were not you conducting village studies/investigations prior to initiating your work?
Answer : We, coming from the middle class, the members of the party usually entered a village through a sympathizer—a poor peasant or small farmer, who gave us shelter in their homes. We, then, held meetings with the villagers (from the same landless laborers and poor farmers classes), sought their opinions about their major problems (e.g., wages, land, etc.) and asked them to identify their main enemies who had been exploiting them. Some of them hurled abuses against the jotedar (landlord), others targeted the local trader-cum-moneylender while the rest bayed blood for the gangster enjoying patronage of local politician. They, then, formed armed squads (equipped with home-made weapons like axes and daggers) to eliminate these enemies, or drive the enemies out.

As for the ideological/political education of these villagers, we told them about the wider political agenda of capturing state power, narrated the history of Mao's leadership in establishing Yenan as a liberated zone, and finally the Communist takeover in China. While they were surely inspired by these stories and by the distant dream of a Communist utopia, I found through my daily relationship with them during their quotidian existence, that they were primarily concerned about their immediate needs—an end to the daily oppression by the jotedars and money-lenders, and an assurance for harvesting their crops (in the tiny plots that they cultivated) and regular wages for the agricultural laborers, among other things.

There were difficulties, but not from within the peasantry in the villages where we enjoyed underground shelters. We had already won their confidence. Some of our comrades (coming from middle class) stayed with them, participated in cultivation and harvesting, helped them with medical aid. But the difficulties arose when the police raided these villages. As I said earlier, these peasants had equipped themselves with primitive weapons like axes and hatchets. While they were good enough to drive out the local landlords and money-lenders, they were no match for the well-armed police force that invaded their villages. Unlike the "liberated zones" of Bhojpur in Bihar, where the Naxalite-led peasantry could resist the police with rifles and armaments captured from police camps, for some time at least, in the villages of Bengal, where we operated in those days, our peasant comrades couldn't afford the risk of confronting the police. In such circumstances, we had to leave those villages with all our belongings (mainly Naxalite literature so that the police couldn't trace the villagers' links with us), bidding goodbye to our peasant-comrades.

To come back to the issue of arms—there were a few occasions when Naxalite guerilla squads did invade police camps and capture rifles. But the main arsenal of the Naxalites in those days consisted of "pipe-guns" (an indigenously manufactured device made out of steel pipes and a push trigger to pump out bullets through the barrel made of the pipe) and home-made bombs known as peto in the contemporary Baanglaa slang.

Q 8: Was there effort to organize economic activities among the poor peasantry with the purposes of widening their space, and developing management skill?
Answer : No. This was one of the failures of the movement in our areas of influence in West Bengal in the 1970s. Even in villages, where the jotedars were forced to leave by the Naxalites, there was no concerted campaign to collect the food grains after harvesting, and distribute them among the villagers, and store them for the future, or long-term strategy to educate the young peasants in agro-industrial activities or training in medical aid (although quite a number of medical graduates and salesmen of pharmaceutical companies were in our party). I have to admit at the same that we had too little time for such planning, as we were constantly on the run—from one village to another—pursued by the police.

Q 9: Shall you briefly narrate the way you and your comrades used to carry on struggles between two lines at local level, or to put it in a simpler way, ways of handling differences of opinions on strategic and tactical issues? How do you evaluate influence of Mao's writings on class analysis, village investigation, peasant movement in Hunan, strategic problems in revolutionary war, and Lin Piao's Long Live the Victory of People's War on your way of looking at the reality and working within the reality of that time?
Answer : To be frank, at the village level, the peasants who were our followers, didn't bother about the two-line struggle. At that time (1973-75), the two-line struggle at the ideological level among the top Naxalite leadership was between adherents of the official Chinese Communist line and those following the rebel Lin Piao (who had by then fallen out of grace from the Chinese party leadership, and was advocating the old tactics of surrounding the cities with armed peasant guerilla raids). However, at the ground level, these differences didn't matter. For instance, in Bhojpur, Jwahar (Subrata Dutta, whom I have mentioned above), who followed the official Chinese Communist Party line, mobilized the peasantry into armed squads to fight the landlords and the state police—just as those among us who belonged to the pro-Lin Piao faction tried to mobilize the peasantry on the same lines of armed resistance in the villages of Bengal, where we tried to set up bases.

To be frank again, I think that the splits in the Naxalite movement in the mid-1970s (in the state of Paschim Banga, formerly West Bengal, where I worked at that time), were more to do with ego-clashes among leaders, rather than any basic ideological differences. They covered up these egoist clashes under pretences of ideological differences (e.g., Mahadeb Mukherjee leading the pro-Lin Piao group in Paschim Banga, accusing Jwahar's group in Bhojpur of betraying the Maoist cause!)

Let me share an experience in this connection. This was sometime in May, 1974, on the eve of the railway strike. We (our Naxalite party, with members from different parts of India—Andhra Pradesh, Bihar) met at a hideout behind Patna railway station, in the railway quarters of a comrade of ours who was a railway employee. It was a night-long meeting, in the course of which I tried to explain to the gathering that we should get out from the syndrome of loyalty to the Chinese Communist model of strategy and tactics (since the Chinese Communists had always followed a selfish strategy to serve their own nationalist interests, and were then at that time—1974—distancing themselves from the liberation movements in south-east Asia, and cuddling up into a relationship with the US, to be cemented by the Mao-Nixon meeting soon after). I reminded them of the independent strategy that was followed by the Vietnamese Communist Party, which we should study and formulate our own set of strategy and tactics that would suit the Indian situation. But my words fell on deaf ears.

Q 10: Did you smell an approaching set back in the revolutionary initiative you were involved with?
Answer : The setback started much earlier—from the early-1970s, when the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI M-L) split into various factions (on issues like tactics, ideological positions, etc). Added to this was the state's ruthless repression that led to the capture of its leaders and killing of its cadres. I have dwelt exhaustively on these twin issues in my book: In the Wake of Naxalbari, which you may consult.

During my brief spell in the underground (from 1973-74), towards the end, I could make out that the Indian state's noose was closing in upon our necks. Most of our underground shelters in the homes of poor peasants in villages, industrial workers in suburban towns, and middle class supporters in Kolkata, were raided and destroyed. We had nowhere to go. Some got arrested, some surrendered, and some, like me, escaped from Paschim Banga. I was lucky in having a friend from Karnataka, who provided me with a secret shelter in his aunt's house in Bangalore for some three months (late 1974-early 1975 period). It was there that I completed my manuscript that was to be later published as In the Wake of Naxalbari.

Q 11: What are the major lessons to be learned from the revolutionary-'70s' initiative?
Answer : As for the major lessons to be learnt from the Naxalite experiences of the 1970s, I think the movement awakened Indian polity and society to the need of addressing the basic grievances of the peasantry. Despite their initial defeat in Naxalbari, Srikakulam and Bhojpur in the 1970s, and their present limited control over a narrow stretch (parts of Chattisgarh, Malgkangiri, bordering states of Maharashtra and Telengana), the Maoists' articulation of the demands of the rural poor had sent loud echoes across the country, which often forced the Indian state to pay heed to those demands. The Maoist movement in that sense has played the role of a positive catalytic agent for the betterment of rural society in post-Independence India. Although they have not yet succeeded in bringing about an agrarian revolution and capturing state power, they have forced a recalcitrant state to enact a number of legislative reforms relating to forest rights of tribals, minimum wages for agricultural laborers and provision of rural employment among other similar ameliorative measures. Despite breach of these reforms in practice (e.g., siphoning off of funds to the private coffers of the axis of local politicians and trades, road contractors and building-mafia, denial of regular wages to laborers under the laws), these legislative measures have at least provided useful tools to civil society groups and human rights activists to approach the judiciary, which often pressurizes the administration to adhere to the government's commitment to meeting the needs of the poor. The lesson is—there is a need for a constant revolutionary movement (even when it is temporarily crushed, or remains confined to a small territory) to keep the people aware of the need to bring about socio-economic changes and pressurize the state to meet the people's demands.

The other lesson to be learnt (by the Maoist revolutionaries)—the need to correct their past mistakes (e.g., tendency to prioritize military actions over mass mobilization) and to shape a multi-level strategy that dovetails the needs of the oppressed agrarian poor (in the tribal areas where they are operating) with other sections of the poor who are fighting the state in the vast countryside and urban areas. I have elaborated on this multi-level strategy in my answer to the question no. 5.

Thank you for sharing with us your knowledge, experience and wisdom.

Vol. 50, No.21, Nov 26 - Dec 2, 2017