‘Naxalbari 50’: Radical Shift In Indian Communist Movement

Light of Naxalbari Glowing for 50 Years

Aloke Mukherjee

Oft in the stilly night
Ere slumbers chain has bound me
Fond memories bring
The Light of Other days around me
—William Blake

If one goes 50 years back down the memory lane, it will bring before him the days full of dreams, vigour, vitality, as well as resolute tireless activities that the great Naxalbari peasant uprising had drawn the communist workers into. True, Naxalbari was not a magic wand; the international and national situations, particularly that in West Bengal, was already drawing them towards the revolutionary movement. But Naxalbari sent the clarion call—the message to stand up.

Internationally, the stability that imperialism could achieve for some time after the World War II was gradually vanishing since the early 1960s, and by the middle of that decade it grew into a deep crisis generating contradictions amongst the imperialist powers themselves. But what made the maximum impact was the continuously growing liberation struggles of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Vietnam, a small country in South East Asia, was daring the might of the US imperialists. Alongside, there emerged the crisis in the socialist camp too. After its Twentieth Congress the CPSU changed its line. Khruschev started propagating three peacefuls—peaceful coexistence, peaceful competition and peaceful transition. The Communist Party of China opposed, and finally with the letter of 14 June, 1963, started an international debate against the CPSU. In China itself, the Cultural Revolution started in order to purge the capitalist readers inside the party.

During that decade, India was involved in two wars (the India-China War in 1962 and Indo-Pak war in 1965) within a short period. The effect of these wars added to the world-wide economic crisis, drove the economy to a critical situation. Everywhere there was discontent among the masses. Two consecutive years of fall in food production generated a food crisis. Unemployment rose to alarming proportions. Industries were getting closed. The rupee had to be devalued. Prices of all commodities were sky-rocketting. The USA, took advantage of the situation to push through the PL-480 agreement and started supplying foodgrains as ‘assistance’. Rotten wheat, cattle-feeding milos, stinking rice were supplied in the name of food to be distributed through the public distribution system. In West Bengal, the situation was more critical. Closures, lockouts, layoffs were rampant. Workers were losing jobs. They were trying to fight back, but the union leaders of both right and left varieties were dragging them from behind. Hoarders and landlords were quick to take advantage of the food crisis. Peasants were fighting landlords. The crisis of food gave rise to a food movement all over West Bengal. Most of the leaders of the CPI(M) were behind the bars, but their imprisonment failed to stop the movement. People were fighting in barricades. Several young students including Nurul Islam, Ananda Hait and working class leaders like Ashis Ranjan Dasgupta and Sk Jabbar died in police firing. Bhudeb Sen, a student, was killed by the police inside the Dinabandhu Andrews college campus. Yet the movement surged ahead. Most of the communist activists were hoping that once the leaders were freed, they would lead the struggle along a revolutionary path. But things turned out to be different. The prisoners were released and a huge rally was organized to demonstrate the strength of the movement and the leaders of the newly formed CPI(M) called upon their comrades to prepare for the 'impending' polls. The effect of this on the comrades who had been continuously fighting the state and organizing underground resistance was aptly expressed by Saibal Mitra , at that time a well-known student leader, in a poem, a few lines of which, in their English renderings, are:

Idol of strength will be immersed with procession,
Will have to return home stealthily in darkness,
When struggle is not being allowed
Let epidemic bring death to us.

True, an ideological struggle was going on within the CPI(M). Documents criticising the party line were in circulation, in most cases secretly. Here and there, dissenting forces, big or small in size were trying to develop struggles and going to the people with the message of revolution. It was the situation when the Naxalbari episode took place. Peasants resisted the police forces trying to enter the village Jharujote and a police inspector was killed in the process. That was on 24 May, 1967. In retaliation, the police and para-military forces attacked a procession of women and killed eleven, including two children. The message was loud and clear. Since the United Front Government was then seated in power in West Bengal with the CPI(M) as an important constituent, which declared that the United Front was an 'weapon of people's struggle', a clear demarcation on the basis of 'which side you are on was to be drawn'. Are you for the struggling peasants or against them? Thus a battle line between revolutionary communism and revisionism or neo-revisionism was drawn.

But the Naxalbari uprising was not a spontaneous one. Since 1954, communist activists had been working there. From 1965 onwards, they were working on the basis of a concerte ideological-political line articulated in what later became famous as the eight documents of Charu Majumdar. Organizers such as Kanu Sanyal, Jangal Santal, Khokan Majumdar, Keshab Sarkar, Kadamlal Mallik had been working among the tea garden workers and peasants of Naxalbari, Kharibari and Phansidewa areas belonging to the Siliguri sub-division of the Darjeeling district with patience and perseverance for more than a decade. Just when the United Front government was formed, a conference of the Siliguri Sub-divisional Peasant Association decided that the land belonging to landlords would be confiscated and distributed among poor and landless peasants, that police forces would not be allowed to enter the villages, that courts would no longer be attended and so on. It was March 1967. The Naxalbari peasant uprising had an electrifying effect. Communist revolutionaries inside the party started organizing themselves. A leaflet published by Jangal Santal calling upon comrades to stand by the side of the struggling peasants in opposition to the neo-revisionist leadership was in circulation. Printed in red ink, it became known as "red leaflet" (Lal Istahar). Very soon, Naxalbari O Krishak Sangram Sahayak Samity was formed through a convention held at the Rammohan Library Hall, Kolkata. Attending the convention was an experience by itself. Many activists who were known dissenters but were avoided in public in order to keep dissenting activities secret were found present there. They did not know that they had the same understanding.

What were the concrete lessons of the Naxalbari struggle and how were these lessons put into practice? They can be outlined as follows:
The ideological basis of the Communist Party should be Marxism-Laninism-Mao Tsetung thought.

The general path of the Indian revolution would be the path of protracted people's war, which was then more popularly known as the Chinese Path. In order to carry forward the protracted people's war, the policy of localized seizure of power and to surround the cities by the villages should be followed.

Imperialism (subsequently, social imperialism was added), comprador bureaucratic capital and feudalism were determined as targets of revolution. By this, the character of the state and the stage of revolution were also defined. The state was semi-feudal and semi-colonial and the stage of revolution was People's Democratic.

Characterization of the big bourgeoisie as comprador was one more important position.

Naxalbari also brought before the revolutionaries that the struggle for land must be connected with the struggle for state power for the success of the agrarian revolution, the axis of revolution in India.

Moreover, it emphasized that any idea of revolution without armed struggle is not only daydreaming, but also betrayal to the people. But these were ideological -theoretical positions most or many of which were being discussed by the dissenting forces within the CPI(M). The real change came in practice. There were two very important points about practice that came as lessons of Natalbari.

Firstly, all those intending to be organizers must integrate themselves with the basic masses, meaning workers, poor and landless peasants and agricultural labourers. Integration meant living with them, sharing their weal and woe, learning from them being students before being teachers. So the call was to go to the villages and stay with poor and landless peasants, to go to the slums of factories and live with the workers. No more looking at flowers from the horseback; you are not only to get down from the horse but also leave it to experience the beauty and fragrance of flowers.

Secondly, no more theoretical or idle talk about the importance of armed struggle. It must be brought into the real agenda. Activities should be to prepare the masses for armed struggle, to intensify the movements and organizational efforts in support of armed struggle. There was another one as important as the above-mentioned two. It was to develop self-esteem and self-confidence among the landless and poor peasants so that they also could become leaders. Leadership should not be the monopoly of the educated few.

Certain other do's and don'ts also evolved during the course of practice.

Since the particularities varied as between areas, regions and districts, we restrict the discussion to the experiences of the two districts. Howrah [where the author worked till one month after the formation of the CPI(M-L)] and Birbhum after that, (but he had to know much more about the details] before he permanently shifted there as one of the organizers. In Howrah, there were large numbers of dissenters within the CPI(M) and it was easy to form the Krishak Sangram Sahayak Samity. But within a short period, differences cropped up within the Samity and so, different sections started working independently.

The emphasis here would be how the experiences of Naxalbari were practised. In Howrah, the main forces were in the Howrah town and Shalimar area. In the villages, there were contacts, but the organisation was weak. There were important leaders like Bana Behari Chakrabarty, Asit Chakrabarty, Madan Das, Achyutananda Das, Ramlal (a popular working class leader and the only working class representative speaking at the historic rally of 11 November in Kolkata Maidan), Bibhutida (I have forgotten the title of this encyclopedia of communist literature and others).

The organization had a strong base at Guest Kin Williams and Sankey. It has also activities at Burn & Co, Indo-Japan Steel, JD Jones, Jatia Cotton Mills at Andul and umpteen numbers of small and medium industrial enterprises. In all the main colleges, there were large numbers of student activists. Narasingha Datta College, Dinabandhu College and Bengal Engineering College were breeding grounds for activists. In local areas like Kadamtala, Betaitala and others, there were not only activists, but also leaders like Nabin Das (more well-known as Sejda). Students stood by the workers in those struggles. A section of them started living in slums with these workers. When there was a closure in Sankey at least three of them used to stay whole nights and days with the workers in the camps at the gates to guard the factory.

Everyday small squads would move around areas to propagate the politics of Naxalbari, ending in street corner meetings. Microphones were not used and hence few specialist speakers whose voices could reach nearly two thousand persons were very much in demand. Cultural activities were also parts of the work.

One example may be given in order to make one understand how local activists and students got integrated with workers. Once a gherao of the manager of the GKW was going on with Achutananda Das, Ramlal and other leaders inside the factory. At the gate a meeting was being held. A large police contingent was present. But in the lanes were the activists of Betaitala and B E Collage, along with Sankey workers, ready to fight the police in case the latter tried to act. Suddenly information came that Das's son had received accidental burn injuries. Immediately this author and a worker of Liluah Railway Workshop, who was present in the lane, rushed and arranged for the child's treatment. Das learned about this only after the successful conclusion of the gherao. The activists knew that others were there to share their weal and woe. Activists were patiently trying to build up organizations in rural areas like Udaynarayanpur, Shyampur, Bagnan etc. But just when the breakthrough as achieved and the possibility of building up peasant associations and peasant movements emerged, the line came of boycotting mass organizations.

The experience of Birbhum was different. After Naxalbari, the student leaders openly came out in support of the uprising, but not a single peasant leader of importance. Initially there was an attempt. A meeting was arranged at Kasthagram near Mallarpur by Tejarat Hossain and Satya Sau, with the help of Kashem Ali, a known peasant leader. Hossain and Sau were well-known persons but both had by then shifted to Kolkata. The 'red leaflet' was discussed. Some enthusiasm grew. Some enthusiasm developed. But the district leadership of the CPI(M) came to know of the meeting and its pressure made Kashem Ali back out. In 1968, two comrades from Howrah came to work. They started well, but left after two months because the organization of the area they had come from demanded them. One of them returned later, and the other went to Binpur, Medinipur. Continuous efforts were there to start work in the rural areas. At that time, students' unions of three main colleges, namely Suri Vidyasagar, Hetampur Krishnachandra and Rampurhat, were run by communist revolutionary activists. There were activists in Viswabharati, Bolpur College and Sainthia Abhedananda College also. Two things were acheved after much effort. A Co-ordination Committee was formed with Dipankar Ray as convener and rural work started at Ruppur village in the Bolpur area. Another breakthrough was made when a landlord of Khandagram village in Dubrajpur had a CPI(M) peasant leader, Salem, killed. Peasants attacked the landlord's house, the landlord fled and his house was ransacked. Activists of Hetampur college got information and rushed there to join the peasantry and a situation of camaraderie developed.

But the development was not unilinear. With the formation of the CPI(M-L), Dipankar and the activists working at Ruppur left and joined the group led by Asit Sen. But by then certain other areas could be developed and a district organizing committee was formed.

A new problem arose. As the activities in rural areas started the party decided to abandon mass organizations. So, new methods of organizing the peasantry had to be employed. The principal method was to organize peasants' meetings and carry out class analyses with their help. It was an experience by itself. Peasants themselves undertook class analysis, trying to identify poor peasants, middle peasants, rich peasanta and landlords on the basis of Mao Tsetung's class analysis. But the problem was to unleash movements. The party organizers were made to move clandestinely. At first in certain areas, where breakthroughs were made, organizers lay hidden from the enemies, but not from the people. Many peasants were joining the CPI(M)'s peasant associations for harvesting the crops of vested lands, only to find leaders striking clandestine deals. They demanded leadership from the CPI (ML) organizers, but that could not be provided.

Abandoning mass organizations had a gravely adverse impact on students' unions also. Sushital Raychau-dhuri, one of the most respected leaders of the CPI(M-L), came to Birbhum to attend a DOC meeting. He stopped for some time at Hetampur. Coming to know of his arrival, some student leaders wanted to meet him and he agreed. He argued that abandoning the students' union would be to hand over to reactionaries the hold of the union on a platter. Raychaudhuri tried to explain to them the party's decision, but could not convince them fully. Then a compromise was arrived at. Raychaudhuri told that among the students activists, all party members would have to quit the union immediately, letting others run it.

Then came the line of annihilation. By then the Birbhum DOC and the Murshidabad DOC had merged into a regional committee embracing Birbhum, Murshidabad and adjoing Santal Parganas. At that time, two new elements were added to the practice. First, barring exceptional necessity, buses and trains should be avoided, meaning that organizers must travel on foot. Sometimes they had to travel more than 50 kms a day.

The second was that rural activists of petty-bourgeois origin should not work in and around their own villages, because it was feared that this might affect struggles against enemies having kinships with them. Political workers did their best to follow these guidelines. It was a kind of sell-discipline to be practised for the cause of revolution.

Why even after the abandonment of mass organizations, the peasantry stood en masse by the side of the party in Birbhum. The answer to this riddle is two fold. Before going underground, the organizers left no stones unturned to reach the peasantry. Not only the organizers, the red guards college students many of whom later became organizers went to villages after villages to meet peasants working on the fields to propagate the message of Naxalbari, the message of revolution.

The second and more important answer to the question is this. At that time, landlords of the district were ferocious; they and the police, were determined not to allow even the peasant associations of the CPI(M), CPI and SUC(I) to launch any militant movement. Several peasant activists belonging to them were killed by the landlords and the police. Many were beaten up and numerous peasant women were molested. Hence peasants were in search of another form of struggle in order to punish landlords. The lines of annihilation of class enemies presented this form. In the concrete conditions of Birbhum it rose as a form from the ongoing class struggle. The case might have been different in other places.

A question that arose in the beginning of the practice of this line was whether it should be "series of actions" or "sporadic actions". The difference was that while for a "series of actions", you have to prepare a sizeable area to start actions, such preparations were not needed for the latter. This author remembers that Sushital Raychaudhuri advised "series of actions". But just after that, a report about an action at Maharani, Tripura appeared in Deshabrati, the Bengali weekly organ of the CPI (ML). There the case for 'sporadic actions' was stressed. Actually all these happened in the course of finding out a means of starting armed struggle. Activists at all levels were eagerly trying to find out such a means. At that point, Charu Majumdar generalised the particular experience of Garurbhadra in Srikakulam. This generalization was later found to be mistaken and a shift from the lessons of Naxalbari. Annihilation of class enemies as a form of struggle and a means of starting armed struggle was found. But the problem was that any form of struggle (be it mass strike, road blockade, gherao, annihilation of class enemies or any other form) could not be the only form, a privileged form to be practised everywhere regardless of the concrete situation for the ongoing class struggle.

In Birbhum, the situation soon reached a stage when mass participation was needed. To solve that problem, village level revolutionary committees were formed in some places. Literally, the policy of one thirds—one third party persons, one third armed guerillas and one third ordinary people—was followed. But that experience could not be generalised. Specifically, when the district was handed over to the military no concerte planning to counter it was there at the regional, state and central levels. Two organizers Pradyot Ray and Madhu raised this question only to find themselves isolated. This author is still self-critical for being instrumental in isolating them by using a small mistake in their argument. Thus survival became impossible in the absence of a military line.

Activists fought valiantly and laid down their lives. When it became clear that a mistaken line was being practised, it was too late. Thus one phase of struggle did face a setback.

But the objective basis of struggles is there still now, because exploitation and oppression have not stopped. Many changes have taken place during the intervening period, complicating the methods of struggle, but the fleecing of the peasantry continues. They have no democracy. The people will rise again and communist revolutionaries are there, more tempered and more experienced to rise to the occasion. The light of Naxalbari is still there to show the way.

Autumn Number
Vol. 50, No.12-15, Sep 24 - Oct 21, 2017