Naxalbari ‘50’: Some Unpleasant Questions

Naxalbari to Nandigram

Sandip Bandyopadhyay

Naxalbari, 25 May, 1967 : Peasants stood against the eviction of a share-cropper and sought to establish their right over their land and produce. Police action followed. At least eleven villagers including five women and two children were shot down. A police officer had been killed by the villagers on the previous day.

Nandigram, 14 March, 2007 : Since January, peasants had been fighting for protecting their farmland from being acquired by the state. Police fired on a peaceful assembly and killed at least fourteen people including two women. The ruling CPI(M) goons who accompanied the force  raped or outraged a number of women. None of the policemen or partymen was reported to be injured.

In terms of casualties and scale of terror unleashed by the state, Nandigram was no less horrible than Naxalbari. In Naxalbari, peasants were instigated by a radical section of the CPI(M) who came to believe that armed struggle was the only means of social change. They incited the peasants to rise in revolt against the exploitative big landowners (jotedars). This was considered the first step.

In Nandigram, the story is well known. It followed the movement against forcible land acquisition that had been going on in Singur since the past one year. The rural atmosphere, in general, was heated. Against this backdrop, the Nandigram upsurge was initially spontaneous. Peasants, cutting across their political and religious identities, rose up. Two opposition parties of different hues—the TMC and the SUC(I)—stood by them and helped organise the movement. Finally the leadership was taken over by the TMC led by Mamata Banerjee. Earlier she had upheld the peasants’ cause in Singur too.

Naxalbari, at the primary stage, inspired a section of the urban youth, mainly students; but did not leave much impact on the people in general. It was evinced in their enthusiastic participation in the 1969 assembly elections. The message of armed struggle and call for boycotting polls didn’t get through to them. It was, in a sense, natural. The Naxalites preferred to work as a secret group and didn’t take interest in mass mobilisation outside their chosen ambit.

Nandigram, on the other hand, was exposed from the outset. It received huge media attention and earned the solidarity of a large section of urban intelligentsia represented by intellectuals, cultural activists, students and rights groups. In 2007, Nandigram became a catchword in public discourse. But it was not so in the case of Naxalbari, at least at the initial stage.

Leftist-minded people in West Bengal, first viewed Naxalbari as a stray incident and then understood it as a matter of internal squabble within the CPI(M). They had little idea of the larger revolutionary objective that Naxalbari stood for. They cannot be blamed. The Naxalite leaders did not try to reach out to them. The little that trickled in bred confusion.

The announcement of the CPI (ML)’s formation on May 1, 1969, however, was an open incident. Kanu Sanyal made the announcement at the maidan meeting in Calcutta (Kolkata). The CPI(M) also held another meeting to celebrate May Day in another part of the maidan. Some interested people, including this writer, then a school-student, attended both the meetings for some time. The experience only added to their confusion. They learnt that the CPI(M) had broken up but had no clear idea of why. They also remained largely unaware of the conflicts within the Naxalite leadership preceding the formation of their party. The entire thing remained enshrouded in mystery and secrecy.

This point is often found missing in the writings on Naxalbari. The fact is that in those days, a leftist mood had permeated the entire Bengal. Many people were sympathetic to the brilliant young boys and girls who, they learnt, had gone to the countryside to do something radical. Fine, but what about the CPI(M)? Sanyal had abused them as the stooge of the Congress because they were still into parliamentary politics. But did it make sense? What was wrong with that politics and what was the alternative?

Not the leaders in person but the graffiti would reply : Parliament is a pig’s den. Throw away all illusions and prepare for the armed struggle. Remember the Chinese path and so on. Confusion loomed large and came to a head when the city walls declared : China’s Chairman is our Chairman. What did it mean anyway?

The language of the Naxalite propaganda was couched in specific jargons and idioms which almost fell flat over the people. The country’s economy was branded as semi-feudal and semi-colonial. Prevailing education system was thoroughly denounced because, as it was explained, in this system ‘the more one reads (studies), the more foolish one becomes’. Fifty years on, any sensible person would probably admit that the Naxalite slogans were too mind-boggling to impress the common people.

Peasants’ cause in Nandigram could stir the urban people because the message was simple and understandable. People could share their views with each other. It is unjust to force the peasants to part with their land. Industrialisation is welcome but it should not be done at the cost of the peasants. Moreover, a foreign company should not be given a free hand to cause havoc to our natural resources for their own benefit. The questions were simple and ethical.

This ethic was markedly absent in the Naxalite message or it was explained in a language that did not appeal to the people. It glorified a cult of blood and preached murder of class-enemies to be a sacred task—a ‘must’ for a revolutionary.

In the days of freedom struggle, the revolutionary terrorists also glorified murder and declared that Mother (motherland) was asking for blood. But their target was clearly marked. They never killed the common people. Whereas the Naxalites would brand anyone as ‘class enemy’ and kill him just out of suspicion. In the countryside, as Asim Chatterjee and some others would later admit, annihilation (Khotom as promoted by Charu Majumdar) took the precedence over organising the peasants for a larger struggle.

It late 1969, as the Naxalite movement flew down from the Himalayan terrain to the Sundarbans on the southern fringe, this message spread across Bengal and all hell broke loose in the urban areas shortly. In the name of preaching revolution, it actually terrorised the civil society. Mutual mistrust often leading to mutual killing vitiated the entire scenario. And the state lost no time in unleashing a reign of terror.

It is pathetic that ruthless police violence and merciless killing of youths didn’t create an immediate reaction in civil society. People were totally confused and traumatised. Attack on the educational institutions, 19th century thinkers and nationalist leaders only added to their fear and confusion. Sadly enough, in late 1971, when the movement had been crushed, people felt a sense of relief even as they groaned under the pain of having lost so many brave young lives. Later talking to some senior leaders like Souren Bosu, this writer had the impression that as most of them had gone underground or been put behind bars by 1969, they had little knowledge of the happenings that had unfolded outside in 1970-71.

As to Nandigram, forty years later, the reaction was completely different. Police violence sent shock-waves throughout the country and sparked off a stir in no time. The situation had meanwhile changed. Perspectives were also different. Hence a comparative study may not be tenable. Revisiting the golden jubilee of Naxalbari and tenth anniversary of Nandigram, one question however springs to mind : Those who indulge in the politics of sheer violence vouch for the people. But does not this politics add to the suffering of the people and finally alienate them from the ideology with which the politics had started? The fate of the recent Lalgarh Tribal Movement (2008-2009) may be a case in point.

There is no denying that violence and valour got intertwined in the Naxalite narrative. Mindless violence misled the movement and arguably, provided the state with an easy pretext for unleashing organised violence. Since the end of the last year, Frontier has been publishing articles on ‘Naxalbari 50’. But this unpleasant question has received little attention.

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