‘Naxalbari 50’

Remembering my Old Comrades

Sumanta Banerjee

There have been lots of theoretical debates over the Naxalbari movement since its beginnings in the 1960s. At times, I also participate in those debates. But looking back at the years that followed, when I moved from the position of a sympathizer to an activist, I  treasure memories of some  wonderful people with whom I had the chance of sharing my days during the underground period, and in jails. This is not a sentimental nostalgic account, but a tribute to a few such brave souls, who dared to break out from their social environs and traditional upbringing, to join a revolutionary movement that tried to revive the moral ethos of our polity and society with the aim of creating a new political order based on economic equity and social justice. It was not a smooth journey for many among them, who had to wrestle within their inner selves in trying to shed the traditional conservative values on which they were brought up on the one hand, and reconciling with the  violent excesses of the movement that hurt their humanitarian values  on the other.

Bhabani Choudhury
The first comrade whom I remember is the late Bhabani Choudhury. My association with him however goes back long before the 1967 uprising of Naxalbari. I met him for the first time as a colleague in the reporters’ room of The Statesman newspaper in Calcutta in 1962. Leanly built, and always with a humble smile on his face, Bhabani (about ten years older than me) took me under his wings, teaching me how to report an event in brief without sacrificing the essential details. In keeping with his style of brevity in reporting, he followed a regimen of simplicity (sometimes bordering on austerity) in his life style too. While most of us journalists spent our evenings in the Olympia bar in Park Street, Bhabani preferred to go back, after office hours, to his favourite haunt, Bonophul , tea-shop near Bosusree cinema hall in Bhabanipur. In fact, Bhabani was once selected for attending a short journalist training course in London, but he came back after a few months without completing the course – as he missed Bonophul !

The other characteristic that marked him out from the rest of us was his stubborn insistence on principles. He always protested against any violation of journalistic ethics by the editorial authorities of The Statesman, as well as any suppression of the trade union rights of the non-journalist employees by the management. In 1966, when these employees went on a strike demanding better wages and other facilities, Bhabani was the first from amongst our journalist community, who came out openly in their support by joining the strike. It was this strong desire for identification with the  oppressed, and  opposition to any act of injustice against them, that led Bhabani to take the next step. Increasingly attracted to the Maoist ideology, ever since the peasant uprising in Naxalbari in 1967, a few years later, in a further daring venture, he resigned from The Statesman in 1972 and joined the Naxalite movement.

Meanwhile, in The Statesman office in Delhi (where I had been transferred in 1967), I was feeling equally suffocated in those years of 1972-73, by the increasing imposition of managerial diktats on our daily reporting,  which violated the principle of freedom of press. Kuldip Nayar (who today writes columns defending human rights), was then the resident editor of the paper in the Delhi office. Poor fellow, he did not have enough guts to assert his own editorial right, and succumbed to pressures from the then manager Khushru Irani (appointed by the Tata business house which had then taken over the paper), to destroy both the journalistic ethos and trade union rights of the employees of The Statesman. In 1973, I resigned from the Delhi office of The Statesman,  stating  my objections in a  letter to Irani protesting against the management’s assault on freedom of press. (Incidentally, this letter was quoted by some MPs  in a debate in the Lok Sabha then, when the then Congress government was investigating into the financial improprieties of the Irani-controlled business houses. I’ve lost that letter of mine – but I hope investigative reporters can recover it from the archives of the Lok Sabha debates).

After resigning from the Delhi Statesman office in 1973, I went back to Calcutta. As I was already sympathetic to the cause of the Naxalbari movement, I joined Bhabani in the underground cell of the Mahadeb Mukherjee-led CPI (M-L) faction.  During my days with Bhabani – usually in  shelters in villages –  I watched him how desperately he was trying to give up his urban middle class roots (described as “de-classing’’ in Communist Party parlance), and identify with the poor peasants. At our party cell meetings, usually in hide-outs in villages, and sometimes held in  slums (inhabited mostly by our sympathizers) on the outskirts of Calcutta, Bhabani used to come out with self-depreciating confessional statements saying when and where he had misbehaved with the poor. I used to taunt him – ‘Eta apnar binoyer ashphalon’ (You are flaunting your humility). But I could understand the rumblings going on inside him – the urge for solidarity with the poor, and at the same time his love for Rabindranath and Bengali literature (which were dismissed as ‘reactionaries’ by the philistine leaders of the Naxalite movement).

We were finally released from various jails (me from Bardhaman jail in 1976 on bail, and Bhabani from Calcutta’s Presidency jail much later), and discharged by the local courts, following the lifting of the Emergency, and fresh elections in 1977 which brought to power the Janata government. But we went in different directions.  I went back to Delhi, joining the civil liberties organization PUCLR (People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Rights), and later the PUDR (People’s Union for Democratic Rights), in order to campaign for the release of our comrades who were still in jails, and organize fact-finding teams to investigate into cases of violation of human rights. Bhabani went into the other direction – retaining his political loyalty to the Naxalite cause, joining old comrades in a faction called Party Unity. The last time I met him was in Calcutta in 1985-86 (?), when he came over to the flat in Gariahat where I was putting up then. As far as I remember, we spent the evening in drafting a press statement in support of the rights of political prisoners. He died sometime later – till his last days remaining committed to the cause of Naxalbari.

Manada – a Guerilla  Squad Jeader
I don’t know what was his real name. But he was known as Manada – a ‘tek-name’ (‘nom de plume’ for a professional revolutionary)  given to him, like many similar names given to us by our underground party organization (e g Agnu for me, Keloda for Bhabani Chowdhury,  and Jaya for Krishna Bandyopadhya, a veteran of the movement who is still today active in Left politics and human rights movement). Mana-da was at one time a worker in a factory. I saw him for the first time in one of our hide-outs on the outskirts of Calcutta – soon after I entered the underground in 1973. It was a party gathering, where he narrated his recent experience of leading a guerilla squad in attacking a police station, snatching a large number of rifles from there, and his journey back to his base far away – to deliver those weapons. During this journey through the countryside, he faced a hostile crowd in a village, which suspected him and his squad of being dacoits, as they were carrying rifles. Manada addressed the villagers, explaining to them the history and politics of the Naxalite movement that lay behind the snatching of the rifles from the police station. He said: “You can hand us over to the police. But please  don’t give back these rifles to the police. These weapons are used by your enemies to kill you. Keep them with you to fight the police.”  The villagers – mainly poor peasants – sat all through the night, debating over whether to hand over Mana-da and his guerilla squad to the police, or allow them to leave. They finally chose the latter option – allowing him and his squad to take away the  arsenal of 303-rifles which they had captured from the police station. They acknowledged that they were not in a position to fight the police, and did not want to be harassed by the police who were sure to arrive in their village soon in their chase for Manada’s guerilla squad. So, the sooner he and his squad left the village, the better. But, while bidding them goodbye early next morning, the villagers held up their arms in clenched fists of Red Salute, a new form of salute that they learnt from Manada.

Listening to Mana-da’s narrative was an unforgettable experience for me. It summed up the complexities of the psyche of our rural poor – a desperate urge to protest against feudal exploitation, explosions into outbursts whenever they are offered avenues of such protests, and then again, retreat into opportunist compromises with their exploiters and enemies for sheer survival.

My ‘Mashi’
I remember, when spending a few days in the early 1970s in an underground shelter of a Naxalite peasant comrade of mine in a village in 24-Parganas, his mother became our ‘mashi’ (aunt), taking care of our daily needs, and protecting us from the police. One evening, she drew me aside, and said: “Son, don’t you ever worship the peasants. Like you babus, we also have in our villages poor peasants who are dishonest, congenital liars, flatterers, thieves...”  She then whispered to me: “Thanks to your party, this son of mine has become a revolutionary. But  my other son is a dacoit – on whose earnings I live.” Her confiding this secret to me made me aware of another dimension of rural psychology – the thin line between a potential revolutionary and a potential criminal.

This point was made sharper during my days of imprisonment in 1976 in Bardhaman jail. Jail wardens often employed poor rural convicts – petty criminals – to beat up the Naxalite prisoners. These convicts came from the same peasant class whom we Naxalites had been trying to mobilize for a revolutionary change in their conditions. Yet, these poor convicts were willing to terrorize us for immediate benefits like fringe concessions granted by the jail authorities, and remission of their sentences, as promised by the jailer.

From Naxalbari to Chambal Ravines
Let me fast forward from my underground life in villages, and the period of incarceration in   Bardhaman jail in the 1970s, to an altogether different scenario in another village in the ravines of Chambal in central India in the 1980s. By then I had returned to my old profession of journalism, and I was persuaded by my young friend, the late Kalyan Mukherjee (who passed away sometime ago) to join him on an adventurous trail of the legendary dacoits of Chambal – who were worshipped as ‘bagis’ (rebels) by the local villagers.

It was sometime in the early 1980s that Kalyan and me,  spent some exciting weeks in the ravines of Chambal, meeting and interviewing some of the ‘popular’ (designated as ‘notorious’ in police records) dacoits there. One evening, we were sitting at a village bus-stop waiting for the last bus to take us back to Bhopal. Kalyan and me, meanwhile went into a discussion about why the peasants in Bihar (about whom Kalyan researched) supported the ‘Mao-badis,’ while the peasants in Chambal supported the “bagi’ dacoits. The term ‘Mao-bad’ cropped up every now and then in our conversation. There was an old man, sitting on a charpoy at the bus stop, puffing away at the ubiquitous hookah. Having listened to our discussion for a long time, he asked us with a tired face: “Tell us beta, where is this railway station called Maobad ? I’ve heard about Ahmedabad, Allahabad stations... but never about the Maobad station.”

His innocent query was perhaps born of the naivety of a politically ignorant village elder of Chambal, but his question ever since then, had haunted me. In our political journey, where is the station that we are trying to reach ?   I remember an observation (made, perhaps by the doughty journalist Anna Louis Strong, or the revolutionary Agnes Smedley ?): ‘We embark on the train of revolution. Some disembark mid-way. Some join mid-way. A few reach the destination.’

Bhumaiyya and Kista Gowd
To switch back to the 1970s – I was arrested in Hyderabad on August 8, 1975, soon after the declaration of Emergency. I was taken to the main jail in the city, and after a brief while, put in a dormitory in the midst of Naxalite comrades from Andhra Pradesh. The language barrier was not a problem, as Telegu-speaking people were familiar in those days with the Urdu-Hindi hybrid that I spoke. But even before I could get closer to these comrades, I was served with a notice ordering my transfer to West Bengal in September that year. (There’s a background to this. Since I was an accused in the Kamalpur Naxalite conspiracy case in Bardhaman, the West Bengal police required my arrest and transfer to their state). On the eve of my transportation to West Bengal, I was transferred from the dormitory to a cell. Cells are meant for punishment of prisoners by isolating them,  and are usually situated in a row along a corridor in a corner of the main prison compound. The corridor where I was transferred to, had on one side cells which incarcerated prisoners who were on the death row. The jail authorities probably decided to put me there, as no empty cell was available elsewhere in the prison. I was to stay there for the night, and a few hours next morning, before being transported to Calcutta the following day. But that night and the morning that followed, proved to be a wonderful experience that remains etched in my memory for ever. In the cell, I spent most of the night, half-asleep, half-awake, wondering what was awaiting me in Calcutta’s Intelligence Bureau interrogation cell. In the midst of my reveries, I heard strains of a song drifting from my neighbouring cell. It was in Telegu, sounding sometimes mournful, sometimes martial. I suddenly heard the words “Naxalbari’’/ “Srikakulam’’/ “Lal Salam’’/ interspersing the Telegu narrative of the song. I sprang up. Who was my next-door neighbor ? A comrade?

After an uneasy night, I woke up early in the morning. Outside my cell window, clutching at the rods, there stood a well-built young man. His head covered with disheveled curly hair, and a welcome smile on his face, he asked me: “Case keya hay?” (What’s the case?)   I said: “Naxal.” He raised his hand, clenched his fist, and greeted me: “Lal Salam!” He then introduced himself in broken Hindi: “I am Bhumaiyya.” It took my breath away! Was he the same famous partner of the legendary Bhumaiyya-Kista Gowd duo, who were our heroes? They were leaders of the Naxalite peasant movement of Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh, and had been sentenced to death in 1972 for allegedly killing a notorious landlord. Since their sentencing, during the years that followed, there had been a widespread campaign by civil liberties groups for their acquittal, which till now had   prevented their hanging. As I was trying to recall those agitations, Bhumaiyya said in a hurried and confidential tone: “Look here, we are on the death row, but are allowed to take a walk along the corridor for just ten minutes every morning. My time is up. It’s now Kista Gowd’s turn. He’ll come soon. Wait for him.”

I   kept waiting behind my cell window – and after sometime a middle-aged, short-statured bald person came up before the window. Greeting me with a smile, he said: “I’m Kista Gowd.” He then held a packet of Charminar cigarettes through the window. When I tried to pick up one cigarette, he said: “Keep the packet.” He bid me good-bye by raising his fist in a Red Salute.

That was the last time I met Bhumaiyya and Kista Gowd. I kept the Charminar cigarette packet with me. It was only after a couple of days when I arrived in Calcutta, and taken to the Intelligence Bureau office in Lord Sinha Road, where I was thrown back in the company of my old Naxalite comrades in the cells, that I opened the packet, and shared the cigarettes with them, telling them that they were gifts from Bhumaiyya and Kista Gowd.

I was soon transferred from the police custody of Lord Sinha Road to the judicial custody in Bardhaman jail. When there, in early December in 1975, we heard that Bhumaiyya and Kista Gowd had been hanged. We, the Naxalite prisoners in our cells, held a memorial meeting. I remembered that on the eve of their execution, both Bhumaiyya and Kista Gowd donated their eyes for transplantation for the needy. They said: “Our eyes could not see the victory of the revolution. But those who will receive our eyes will surely watch that victory.”  

Vol. 49, No.45, May 14 - 20, 2017