‘Naxalbari 50’

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Lawrence Lifschultz

On more than one occasion since India's Emergency began in June, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has commented how, in her view, many people, particularly in the West, "seem to have different standards for India than for other countries." In late September, however, when Franco's fascist Government executed two Basque Nationalists and three Marxist-Leninist rebels, India joined in that common standard of international indignation and outrage over the killings. Demonstrations swept Europe and public fury compelled governments to review diplomatic relations with Madrid. Franco stood condemned and isolated.

But hardly two months after "El Caudillo's" last act of vengeance ended with five riddled bodies lying dead in a Spanish field, Mrs Gandhi's frequently repeated claim, about the hypocritical standards of international opinion was never more evident than on December 1 when the Indian Government hanged two middle-aged peasants named Bhoomaiah and Kista Gowd. After the executions, New Delhi calmly basked in the double standard Indian officialdom has been so quick to condemn. The world said not a word. In the international press there was not even a negative editorial comment. And no government was reported to have reviewed diplomatic relations.

The hanging of Bhoomaiah and Gowd, members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), popularly known as the Naxalites, was the first execution of political killers in India since N V Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, walked to the gallows more than a quarter of a century ago. Both of the accused were sentenced to death for killing their local landlord, Lachchu Patel of Adilabad district in Andhra Pradesh. Patel, according to evidence presented in the case, was rather typical of many among India's rural land-owning gentry who through extortion, usury and force maintain their dominance over that class of peasants who make up their tenants, sharecroppers, or bonded labourers.

One day in April 1970, Gowd (45), who was a farmer, and Bhoomaiah (48), the village tailor, participated in a daylight march of nearly 300 villagers upon the landlord's house. The confrontation ended in Patel's death and 28 peasants were hauled up on murder charges.

The incident occurred during a period when the Naxalites movement in India was reaching a high pitch. The Naxalites rejected what they considered India's bourgeois parliamentary system and advocated instead a form of "people's war" to achieve the country's transition to socialism. In a large tribal tract of Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, the guerilla movement reached a peak in 1970 when "red" power in embryonic form actually emerged in hundreds of villages. Government forces at the time were faced with frequent guerilla actions and in much of Srikakulam administrative control was lost.

In the legal case against these "red" peasants, charges were eventually dropped against all except Bhoomaiah and Gowd, who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death on January 5, 1972. Since then they had lived under the executioner's shadow, dying, according to one Indian commentator "in instalments".

The execution of Bhoomaiah and Gowd had been set for November 26, 1974, when the Chief Minister of Andhra was persuaded to issue a temporary restraining order. The stay came only after the jailer had already taken their neck measurements. Another date was set for May 11 of last spring. Although a closely guarded secret by the authorities, the timing, leaked out and three young lawyers in Andhra Pradesh having found a legal loophole in the fact that, the rejection of their clients' mercy petition by the President had not been communicated to the condemned, were able to persuade an Andhra High Court judge to hold open court in his front yard and to issue a restraining order barely moments before the execution was to take place. In the end, the state's High Court rejected their writ petition and the case was then brought before India's Supreme Court.

Bhoomaiah and Gowd's lawyers argued that a killing which occurred out of deep political motives and which was itself an expression for a society free from exploitive social practices had to be distinguished from run-of-the-mill crime. Such a murder committed out of a feeling of intense frustration and motivated by a desire to establish social and economic justice through violence, the lawyers said, must be considered a political offence inspired by state failures to redeem the pledges underlying the Indian Constitution. As such, the political criteria of the offence had to be considered, independently and individual could not be condemned as ordinary criminals.

On October 3, a Supreme Court Bench, including Justice Krishna Iyer who played a prominent role in the Prime Minister's legal tribulation earlier this year, handed down final judgement on this case of the two Andhra peasant revolutionaries. While the Supreme Court Justice clearly acknowledged the class of political offences as one distinct from plain murders, the judges pleaded that "the penal code which by oath of office we enforce, makes no such classification and we cannot re-write the law, whatever our own views on urgent reforms. No matter how sympathetic the court might be, it was an area reserved by the Constitution for a presidential judgement.

The judges went on to say that "rejection of one clemency petition does not exhaust the power of the President or the Governor. The political nature of the offence and the undoubted decline in capital punishment in most countries of the world should be urged before the President. Over the centuries society has come away from the crueller forms of legal death, an almost revolutionary change in penology has taken place in England since 1801, when a boy of 13 could be hung for stealing a spoon. Not raw ferocity but warm humanity is the heart of law".

Within a few days of the Supreme Court declaring the question beyond its jurisdiction, a new petition campaign began. One plea signed by 135 jurists, including three former chief justices of high courts and over 130 Supreme Court lawyers, was submitted to the President. Earlier, 80 Members of Parliament, including many members of the Congress party, had called for a reprieve. And the Communist Party of India began an earnest last-minute attempt to dissuade the authorities.

But these efforts received no publicity. India's press censorship appeared to play a critical role in withholding information from the public about the case. Some in New Delhi argue that censorship actually proved a decisive element in the final deadly outcome for the two accused. The time of the hangings was set and kept a closely guarded secret. And when the moment of execution actually arrived after so many years of delay and reprieve, it did so with such suddenness that it caught most of those concerned by total surprise.

The case had dragged on for three years and seven months, and most observers expected it to go on for much longer. No political prisoner had yet been executed in India since Gandhi's assassin, and there was an aura of disbelief that the authorities would actually go through with it in the case of the two Naxalites. The stepped-up rhetoric, on behalf of the oppressed and exploited in Mrs Gandhi's 20-point policy programme made it appear all the more incongruous.

Last May nearly all of India's major daily newspapers gave prominent coverage to the story, with papers like the Hindustan Times running lead editorials entitled "The Forgotten Ones". But the only item to appear this last and fatal time was a three-sentence, one-inch paragraph dated November 30 which actually showed up in the papers the morning of the hanging, December 1.

New Delhi readers awoke to the last sentence of the official news report "Both the prisoners are scheduled to be hanged tomorrow morning" hours after both men were already dead. What has baffled and disturbed many concerned with the trial is why Bhoomaiah and Gowd were hung when similar cases brought before India's President have received clemency. Only two years ago the celebrated case of Nagabhusan Patnaik, a 40-year-old lawyer and a top functionary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), was granted a commutation of the death sentence following a Cabinet decision. Patnaik had participated in a guerilla squad action in which a landlord died, and although he personally refused at his trial to defend himself, be defended or plead for clemency others were successful in winning a pardon on his behalf. More recently India's President granted a mid-term reprieve to Shamin Rehmani who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder far less political in nature. Her upper-class origins and political connections at the highest level were apparently decisive in winning the reprieve. According to one reliable report, a brother of the accused had been a personal assistant to Presdent Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed when he was Food and Agriculture Minister.

However, Bhoomaiah and Gowd had none of the glamour of bright, young, college-educated children of the upper class turned into revolutionaries. They were peasants who apparently did not know the right people where it counted. A person involved in the negotiations for their clemency claims that the Home Ministry apparently rejected their plea for mercy saying they could not be considered under the category of political prisoners, since they were both uneducated and illiterate. Unlike Nagabhusan Patnaik, they were not intellectuals, and therefore in the logic of certain officials could not be considered to have acted from political motives.

Nevertheless, the background of both indicates the opposite. They had been politically active participants in the communist-led Telengann peasant uprising in the late 1940s. And Kista Gowd had served a two-year prison sentence in connection with that movement.

Their deaths may make little difference in that great scheme of things where politics can and does crush many like flies. But already, as could be expected in a time of great political gaps in the country, Bhoomaiah and Gowd have become martyrs for those among the opposition.

In a circular sent to most foreign correspondents in New Delhi, George Fernandes President of India's Socialist Party and currently living underground, declared, that the death of the two Naxalites would be revenged. But for others, the two remained the villains of that other India who would dare rebel from, the bottom and have, therefore, faced the ultimate justice the state could offer.

During the appeal, India's Rights Committee compared the case to that of Dostoevsky, whose death sentence was commuted in the last minutes by the Czar. The committee called upon the Prime Minister and the President to "let it not be said that Czar Nicholas I was more compassionate and merciful than the sovereign democratic Republic of India". But even that did not work and both Kista Gowd and Bhoomaiah were hung in the early hours of December 1.

[It was first published in December 26, 1975 issue of Far Eastern Economic Review. Frontier reproduced it in its January 10, 1976 issue. In view of the on-going celebration of 50th anniversary of Naxalbari uprising, we reproduce it again]

Vol. 50, No.2, Jul 16 - 22, 2017