Letter From Brussels

To Kolkata, To Hyderabad & Back–A Long March

Julie Robert

After time well spent in Delhi and Dehradun, we embarked for our longest journey: Delhi-Kolkata in a night train. In spite of the more than basic comfort of the seats, I slept for twelve continuous hours in a berth, stuck between six Bangladeshis. Probably this was the longest night of my whole trip. The following two days will turn out to be the most intense of my three weeks of encounters and discoveries. On our arrival and after a few phone calls, Partho told me that he had arranged meetings for me with the families of two political prisoners. Gautam, a friend I met in Brussels and who lives in Kolkata, agreed to play the interpreter since the families speak only Bengali. I now had a fantastic opportunity to plunge into the reality, that I was living only by proxy until then, by experiencing the magnitude of human grief, fears, frustrations and torments that fill the life of these families.

The next day, we took a local train towards the suburbs of Kolkata, where Abhishek Mukherjee's parents agreed to spare me a moment. Abhishek was at the head of a student front before joining the Party in 2009 and going underground. He was arrested in 2013 after being very active in the Nandigram struggle in West Bengal, during which thousands of peasants rose up against the proposal for acquisition of their ancestral lands. Accused in several cases, Abhishek has remained in custody since his arrest. His parents welcomed me in their tiny home and we sat on their bed, the four of us. The meeting was more human than political. His dad made it a point of honour to talk to me in English and this restricted our communication. He told me about the atrocious living conditions inside the jail, the harassment of the guards, how difficult it is to contact his son, the lack of communication from the authorities, etc. He told me how nice Abhishek is, and that he as an individual is convinced of the soundness of his son's struggle, and Abhisek's involvement in a movement that is totally directed towards others with a view to building a better society. The most intense and emotional moment of this meeting came when Abhisek's mother informed me of the social harassment faced by them in the locality since the imprisonment of their son. The family is continuously watched by the police and they are victims of discrimination from other habitants of the locality who look down upon them as criminals. Life has become extremely complicated for them since Abhishek has been jailed, but they are brave, continue to support their son and do everything in their means to get him out of prison. I promise them that I'll do my best to make the international campaign we put up in Europe successful so that it would help the struggle for the release of all the young people who believe in another world and to share their message through my works. A few days after I came back to Brussels, Partho told me that Abhishek has been released on bail, and that he was back with his parents. He is still charged under the law of the country but free from imprisonment for the moment.

The next day, still under the wing of my friend Gautam, I discovered Kolkata, its congested alleys, its numerous means of transport, its packed metro monitored like an airport with metal detectors at each entrance, its poverty, its luxury, the polluted Ganges and the amazingly cluttered bookshops gathered in this real maze forming the bookseller's area. As in cartoons, the books seem to make up pillars, walls and shelves, holding each other up and I did not dare touch any book for fear of everything collapsing around me. Searching for a book was easy and there was no need to go searching around the area. Every bookseller has an 'assistant' who is always ready to go for the requested book in the maze of alleys!

After a few hours of wandering, we again mounted Gautam's motorbike for a ride to the extreme southern suburbs of the city, to go and meet the mother of two young boys imprisoned, one for the past few years, the other for the past few months. Once again, we came to a house more than modest, with a sofa and a bed for furniture. As soon as the mother started speaking, she burst into tears. Gautam was so emotionally affected that he could not manage to carry on with the translation. I felt distressed and I could neither understand what was being said nor intervene and did not know where to put myself. I dared to ask Gautam to give me some elements of the conversation, which he finally did to the best of his abilities. One after the other, her two sons have been picked up by the police which burst into their home and took them away after going through the house with a fine-tooth comb. A few months back, her husband died of a broken heart, not able to bear the absence of his sons anymore. The mother doesn't understand the motives for their arrests. She is terrorized, she is afraid of saying something that might backfire on her sons, so much so that during our meeting, she called the 'support committee' several times, to take their advice. Today, she is not even sure of the prison in which her eldest boy is jailed. When I asked her the question, she reached for her phone again, to call a member of the 'support committee' in order to ask him the details. This mother can only pass me on her sorrow, her anxiety, and above all, her loneliness. I felt the need to share her emotion and her helplessness, but after a few endeavours, I gave up the idea of taking part in the discussion. I let them talk, without asking for any translation anymore. After an hour, Gautam took the time to sum up the conversation for me. I felt so bad that our departure looked like a flight. On the pillion of Gautam's bike, I cried profusely. Gautam was silent, for the first time. We quickly stopped at a market to have a drink, share our emotions and to think about the value of our work. A little relieved, we get back on the motorbike, but my nights will always be haunted by policemen, violent prison guards and mothers in tears.

My journey is coming to an end, I still have one person to meet. Partho had agreed to arrange an appointment for me in Hyderabad with Varavara Rao, a revolutionary poet involved in the revolutionary struggle since the sixties. He was one of the emissaries sent by the Party for the talks with the government in 2004. Tatah, a university professor, welcomed me in Hyderabad. He offered to come with me to VV, as he is commonly known. On the way, we tell each other our respective political commitments, and I learn that he is behind a collective supporting the migrant workers. I stayed for two days in the city, and he offered me to spend them with him and his comrades, which I accepted right away. The meeting with VV was brief but intense. The 73 years old man, quick-witted, is more active than ever. Immediately, he invited me to the conference of the CRPP (Committee for the Release of the Political Prisoners), where he is to speak the following day. I attended it, but as it was entirely in Telugu, the local language, I soon gave up. Our two hour-long interview focused on his militant life, his endless stays in jail (the last being in 2006) and on how he takes advantage of them for his writings.

In the sixties, several poets realised that they were more and more disillusioned by the system. Then, they decided to come together to create an organisation of not only poets, but also artists and other intellectuals. At the time, it was the first writers' movement post-Naxalbari. In its manifesto, the organisation asserts that the path of Naxalbari is the only path, and that it is directly inspired from the peasant struggle. From the beginning, it is targeted by the authorities. The acts of repression varied went from banning the writings to the arrests of a number of its members, which included Varavara Rao. It was his first stay in prison. A question sprung in my mind : why, if he advocates the path of Naxalbari and propagates his views in public, hasn't he ever joined the Party? He told that it is a personal choice because he considers that the Indian Constitution gives him the freedom of speech, and he wants to use it. He said that he has the right under the Constitution of India, to advocate a revolutionary struggle, and even an armed struggle. The underground membership of the Party blocked off this possibility. So, since the sixties, he has trumpeted that the armed struggle is the only path to free the people, using his numerous trials as a rostrum. Given that he has had several spells in prison, I asked him to tell me about the experience of the prisoners accused of having links with the Maoist guerrillas. He explained to me that these prisoners have certain privileges, such as receiving newspapers, or even sometimes books, but that they are also subject to many restrictive measures like censorship of the mail, bans on visits by known persons or solitary confinement. VV had been subjected to solitary confinement for 100 days and the isolation had inspired him to write a book. He told me that one of the main demands of the present struggle is the recognition of the status of political prisoner by the authorities. Indeed, inside prisons, some prisoners are considered as 'Naxalite prisoners'. Yet, this status doesn't exist in any statute. The status as per law is that of a 'political prisoner' but the jail authorities choose to classify prisoners according to their whims and fancies. I realised then, how important it is to highlight and make this the theme of our international solidarity campaign. VV also told me how, for him, the struggle has to go through a process of raising the consciousness of the masses, either by culture, politics or armed struggle. It is the first time that I got the impression effacing someone who is fundamentally and intrinsically convinced of the appropriateness of the armed struggle led by the Maoist party. VV also told me of the necessity for a strong party to seize power and to establish 'people's power'. Giving the example of the struggle of some political prisoners in Europe, I asked him if it is possible to carry on any political work inside jails. For his part, he has always continued his propaganda behind bars when he was in contact with other prisoners. When I asked him how he did it when he was in isolation, he replied with a mischievous glance that he always managed to find a way to get in touch with the other prisoners.

Then, he recounted what happened during four months towards the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994. Three members of the Party imprisoned in three different jails in Andhra Pradesh had launched a huge movement for the improvement of the conditions of detention and the release of the prisoners serving long sentences. Under their leadership, thousands of common law prisoners started a hunger strike and followed the movement. Outside, the struggle was massively supported by multiple actions, the writing of texts, songs, the publishing of magazines, leaflets and squibs, the organisation of huge meetings. At the end of this vast movement, the government had to give in and it released 400 prisoners who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. None of them was a member of the Party, which is, for VV, the best piece of evidence of the cause for which the Maoists struggle on a day-to-day basis. Our discussion concludes with his involvement in the peace talks in 2004. They failed after the assassination of several Maoist leaders in armed 'encounters' with counterinsurgency security forces. For VV, there are three basic elements for any advance: a ceasefire from the authorities, a reallocation of the land and India's exit from institutions like the World Bank, and thus a financial autonomy to steer clear of the subordination brought about by their programmes.

Afterwards, Tatah took me to a meeting of his group. The agenda was the planning of the programme for the following day. In Andhra Pradesh, there are a lot of brick kilns. The owners of these kilns experience a shortage of workforce during some periods during the year. As a result, they have set up a system of exploitation which is profitable to the kiln owners and destructive for the workers. In the month of September, representatives of brick kiln owners go to the neighbouring Odisha to meet the peasants who, at that time of the year, have no resources and don't even have the means to buy their seeds. The owners offer them money, just enough to buy seeds for the season and 'provide' for their family. In lieu of these funds advanced, the peasants undertake to go to Andhra Pradesh to work in the brick kilns during the off-season months from January to July. Totally destitute, the peasants accept this arrangement in distress. In January, they pack up and go, often with their wife and children, to work in the kilns. The land being infertile, not much irrigated and therefore non-productive during the lean season, the peasants have no alternative options. That being the case, when they arrive in Andhra, all the money received has already been spent and they have no resources left with them. On their part, the brick kiln owners take a position that the migrant workers' wages have already been paid. Only the barest minimum is provided to migrant worker and this could just be a bag of rice per family per week.

The committee set up by my host intend to struggle for the rights of these migrant workers, and the programme for the next day is the first step of this struggle. The programme is to go to a local weekly market to raise the awareness amongst the workers. The plan is to organise a one-day strike to demand a minimum wage, a ban on child labour, minimum social security rights and acceptable working conditions, particularly concerning the electrical safety standards (two workers died of an electrocution during the last few months). The idea of the militants is simple, but in the field the situation is difficult. The workers are subjected to daily harassment, the women are often victims of sexual harassment and basic human rights are under threat. Over several hours, the comrades discussed how they will approach the workers, what they will say so that the listener's reaction is not to flee but to hear them and how to make them take part in the strike action. The conclusion is unanimous: the migrant workers are so repressed that they have not the faintest notion of dignity anymore. There is no alternative other than to talk straight to the migrants and tell them to fight for a better future.

Sunday, midday. We boarded a bus (well, a more or less running 'thing' taking along 60 passengers which is twice its capacity of 30 seats!) to go to a village a few dozen of kilometres away from Hyderabad. The journey was long, very long, several hours, and the heat was overwhelming, probably more than 40 degree Centigrade. I grinned and braved it, I felt that this was an important moment of my trip. On reaching the destination, we immediately headed for the market. I followed in a comrade's footstep and stuck close when she approached the workers. Once again, it was impossible for me to take part in the action as the conversation was either in Telugu or in Oriya. Yet, the tension was palpable, the women's fear was obvious, the workers' turmoil evident, and the children's amazement genuine. The most important thing is, apparently, to make them understand that the objective is to try to help them. I felt that the fear of the brick kiln owners' retaliatory measures was more strong than anything else. The women workers were unwilling to look at the eyes of the militants, and often the exchanges become heated. My comrades told me that we were perceived as intruders, and that the workers thought that whatever we might do, their situation will only get worse because of the retaliatory action of their employers. After several hours of intense and strenuous discussions, we turned back. The comrades were lukewarm and afraid that the owners' pressure might be too strong to let their action bear fruit. Still, they were happy that after all a lot of workers did listen to what they had to say, and above all, they showed their presence. Straightaway, they decided to go back there again the next Sunday. For my part, I was totally fascinated by initiative of this small committee of a dozen students which undertook to mobilize the exploited migrant brick kiln workers, to make them win back their dignity and to give them a chance to struggle for a decent life. That evening, I went to bed with a heavy sunstroke, exhausted, but with a feeling of having shared a moment of militant involvement such as the one that I experienced that day. I had hoped to experience such moments while I was preparing for my journey. At the time when I write these lines, the strike has not been organised yet, because they are waiting for a police permission. The militants are aware that repression from the brick kiln owners against the migrant workers and their families will be strong and that it would be a mistake to add the risk of a police repression to it.

Only two days were left for me in Delhi. I had plenty of appointments. A chat with a comrade member of Sanhati who is working on gender issues and who wanted to share her views with mine. Gautam Navlakha had offered to spend some more time together and in particular to talk about his book in more details. A professor teaching at the University of Delhi had had suggested to Partho to get together for a drink and a political discussion (this professor has since been arrested on 9 May in Delhi by the Maharashtra police with a charge for 'alleged links with Maoist leaders' and placed in custody). However, I could not meet any of them. Reaching Delhi by plane from Hyderabad, I put down my bag at the guest house in a state of total exhaustion. These fifteen days have been so intense that I was completely spent.

I had lived through an experience of assimilating information, encountering emotions, sharing moments and endless discussions. The fatigue of a trip of more than 5000 km long added up to it. I needed to rest and decided to cancel my last appointments. This trek has given me more than I had ever imagined, and above all there was a burning desire to carry on the work initiated over the last few years. Three months later after having recovered the weight lost and fifty hours of sleep that I missed, I remember Partho, Abhishek's parents, VVR, Tatah, the crying mother, the students of Hyderabad, the terrorised peasants, etc. So far away and so close, their fight is our fight. Long live international solidarity!

[The author travelled in India from 11 to 27 March, 2014]

Vol. 47, No. 32, Feb 15 -21, 2015