‘Naxalbari 50’

‘Comrades and Companions’

Ramchandra Guha

Identification with the Naxalites led me to my third field site in Calcutta, the circle around the radical weekly, Frontier. The journal was run from one long room in the heart of the city, some six miles north of Jadunath Bhawan. The first time I visited the Frontier office, I was irresistibly reminded of a description in Leon Trotsky’s autobiography of the journal Iskra, run in exile by a handful of Russian revolutionaries. Frontier was housed in the back of a building set apart from a small lane, itself hidden by a huge cinema house from the bustling main street. I felt palpably a part of an underground operation. This feeling was made more intense when, on entering the office, I was introduced to a lean, intense man with sunken eyes and a goatee. He could very well have been the young Lenin in Zurich.

The man in the goatee now runs Frontier with a devotion and meagre financial reward almost unequalled in the world of Indian journalism. At that time, however, he was assistant to the editor, Samar Sen, one of the more remarkable figures in the history of Bengal Marxism.

Samar Senwas born into a typically middle-class, Bhadralok (literally ‘genteel folk’) family, a background he wryly caricatured in his memoirs Babu Brittanta (A Babu’s Tale). Growing up between the wars, like many of his peers he became a fellow traveller of the CPI, the party then making strong progress among students of the University of Calcutta. Samar’s radicalism was expressed most directly in his poetry. As a young college student, barely out of his teens, he wrote five slim volumes that are collectively held to constitute a paradigm shift in the trajectory of Bengali poetry. I have read the work only in translation, but in the opinion of knowledgable critics it was Samar Sen who first introduced wit into Bengali verse, while bringing at the same time an economy of expression, akin to prose, into a tradition of effusive lyricism.

Astonishingly, when he had turned twenty-five Samar Sen decided he would not write any more poetry. He never did. Sacrifice is deeply respected in both the Communist and Indian traditions, and the poet’s act of renunciation assured him a unique status in the folklore of Indian Marxism. Thus a liberal economist who has never heard of Samar Sen recently described a Bengali intellectual to me as one who ‘At fifteen has written his first poem. At seventeen has burnt his first tram. At nineteen has joined the Party. At twenty-one has left the Party. At twenty-three has written his last poem. At twenty-five has joined the World Bank — and at thirty has left it to rejoin the Party.’

The poetry apart, this is not a curriculum vitae that matches Samar Sen’s. Always an ironic, detached man who personally stood apart from politics, he never at any stage openly identified with the Party. On renouncing poetry he became a journalist. For nearly twenty years he worked in the establishment press, for about half that time as a correspondent in Moscow.

When I first met Samar Sen, he had only a few years to live, and Frontier, started with the savings of the editor and his friends, had been going for a decade and a half. From the beginning, the weekly had appeared in quarto size on yellowing newsprint. Its austerity was a reminder of its modest origins and of the cause it came to hold.

Frontier was formed in the wake of the uprising at Naxalbari in north Bengal, when movements of landless peasants and tribals were erupting all over southern and eastern India. For a while it seemed that the country would go the way of China. The ruling classes were scared and a wave of business houses moved out of Calcutta.

In West Bengal the Naxalite movement was crushed through state repression, aided by fratricidal warfare among its cadres. At the helm of the anti-Naxalke operation was an Inspector General of Police, who called himself a Marxist, opposing the Maoists for their left-wing adventurism — clearly an infantile disorder. Withal, he was a hero among the historic enemies of the working class. The poet Dom Moraes has written of accompanying this policeman for lunch at the Calcutta Club; when they entered the dining room, suited businessman stood up and applauded vigorously.

Anyway, at the time of which I write the Naxalites were in complete disarray. In parts of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh they continued to work courageously among the most deprived sections of Indian society— tribals and low castes. Yet the Indian Revolution seemed as far away as ever, and a once-united movement had fragmented into many parts. These sects were largely agreed on the character of the Indian state — semi-feudal, comprador, pace Professor Sengupta of the IIM but quarelled bitterly on the correct identification of the Soviet Union : was it social-imperialist, or merely state capitalist? They were equally divided on events in contemporary China. Some were pro-Lin Piao, and Gang-of-Four, pro-Cultural Revolution; some anti-Lin Piao, pro- Gang-of-Four, anti-Cultural Revolution. Other variations were permissible, but all were, of course, pro Mao himself.

As a respected forum above these divides, Frontier opened its pages to exchanges between different Maoist sects. The debates were fierce and highly personalised, though conducted in the cause of bringing about “Party Unity’— which, curiously, was the name of the most obstinate sect of all. More valuably, the weekly carried reports of local agrarian struggles and of human rights violations by the state, which no bourgeois paper was likely to print. The editor’s hand was most apparent, perhaps, in the journal’s end pages, where new films, art and literature were written about without any necessary genuflection to the principles of socialist realism. Without any prodding from its subject, a legendary aura had grown up around the journal’s editor. It was rumoured that Samar Sen was not Maoist, but some kind of anarcho-Marxtst. I actually never heard him talk politics. But one could infer his editorial policy from a line of Trotsky’s he liked to quote: that there was no Pravda (truth) in Izvestia (news), no Izvestia in Pravda.

Inhis character, Samar Sen exemplified the simplicity of living so characteristic of the best kind of Indian Marxist. He lived in a tiny flat in southern Calcutta. Although the editor never burnt a tram, he travelled to his office in one — a journey of over an hour, each way, that he made daily till he was seventy and ailing. I remember him as a gentle little man with a shock of white hair on his head and round glasses on his eyes, a cigarette forever unlit upon his lips. In conversation he was incapable of anger or bitterness. The only time I saw him upset was when his friends planned a festschrift in his honour, a project he resisted with all his heart.

As an imaginative writer drawn almost against his will into radical politics, Samar Sen was a reminder that Marxist intellectual practice too could occasionally have an exquisite lightness of touch. His early renunciation of poetry notwithstanding, he retained an abiding love of literature, especially Russian literature. In a polemic I once wrote for Frontier Iinvoked as a model thinker for our times the radical theologian and environmentalist Ivan Illich. The editor had never heard of Illich; assuming I had made a mistake, he changed it in the proofs (without my knowledge, and rendering the sentence meaningless) to Ivan Illyich — a character from Tolstoy  I had never heard of.

[Excerpted from Ramchandra Guha’s ‘An Anthropologist Among the Marxists and other Espays’]

Vol. 49, No.52, Jul 2 - 8, 2017