‘Naxalbari 50’–1

Repertoires and Politics in the Time of Naxalbari

Ranabir Samaddar

The time of Naxalbari calls back to us the past narratives of how Bengalees became radicalised. Historians of Bengal agree that one of the characteristic ways in which Bengalees were radicalised was through the adoption of a critical, interrogative mode. In the process it may have gone at times to extreme length, but time does all the corrections in life. In the long run, the interrogations became part of the common sense of the people. Yet this is not all. Since interrogation and questioning imply acceptance of no final truth, the critical mode has meant a permanent workshop of ideas and a permanently dialogic mode. Once again, dialogues at times became quarrels, inter-sect strife, and battles over ideas to the point of death. But in this case also, time has been the healer. It is an irony thus that the time of Naxalbari with its extremely critical attitude to the period of what is called the Bengal Renaissance resembled in many ways the latter and exhibited the same critical attitude that latter had shown through figures like Akshay Dutta, Vidyasagar, and others.

This was not willed by any agency. The fact the Naxalites had rebelled against an established party and an organisational mode made it difficult for them to recoil back to the same structure of reaching truth howsoever some of them wanted and had therefore formed a party no sooner had they rebelled. The tumultuous events of the time cloud the fact this was as a result a time of intense dialogues. Dialogic truths are uncertain, unstable, and contingent. The truths that the politics and the time of Naxalbari produced hence will have a long life—durable but unstable. For this among other reasons Naxalbari, praised and reviled alike, has come to occupy a singular place of significance in the annals of radical politics in post-independent India. Much has been written on what had happened in that remote place in North Bengal fifty years ago, why and how the politics of Naxalbari engulfed the whole of West Bengal and quickly spread to other parts of the country, the massive participation of students and youth in the mobilisations, the movement's non-conformism, and heavy state repression on the movement. Journalists and chroniclers have also written on how the movement in a different form, more known as the Maoist movement, continues.

Yet some aspects of the time and the movement have gone unnoticed or have been taken as natural. One of these aspects is how dialogues take shape in contentious time, how they become contentious conversations, indeed how repertoires of struggles build around them. It may be worthwhile today to look into aspects like these in some details. The time of extreme radicalization meant also extreme republicanism and egalitarianism. The time and mobilization erased all distinctions, hierarchies, and inequalities from the map of revolution. The Revolution did not recognize any caste, or gender, or occupational distinctions. Everyone was a Red Guard. How could this happen? Perhaps besides an extreme egalitarian ideology the spiritual ambience of the time and the movement had something to do with creating a utopia on earth. All these meant a particular mode of doing politics. They meant styles of slogans and repertoires in contentious time.

Thus slogans like these were raised: Amar bari, tomar bari, Naxalbari, Naxalbari (Your home, my home is Naxalbari); Tomar nam, amar nam, Naxalbari Vietnam (Your name, my name Naxalbari, Vietnam); Chin-er chairman, amader chairman (China's Chairman is our chairman too), along with popularisation of some other slogans that originated little earlier in that time of unrest : Jokhon-i janata chai bastra o khadya, Simante beje othe juddher badya (Whenever people want clothes and food, war drums beat up on the borders instead). Lines from the Red Book (Quotations from Mao's writings) were tuned into slogans and became the stuff of legendary posters, such as Women are half the sky, students and youth are like the sun of eight or nine in the morning, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, revolution is not a piece of embroidery or a piece of fine art, but the deployment of force by one class over another, etc.

These slogans congealed many political truths born out of experiences, and besides helping to mobilize the participants in a particular way and mood, they created a world, which challenged the very concept of politics practised then—hidebound, confined within a nationalistic and narrow imagination, parliamentary, docile, elite, revolving around chamber confabulations —and instead asked politics to be wide, adventurous, ethical, rebellious, and therefore to a large extent arrogant. The proverbial prairie fire happened not because any god willed it, but along with the reality of unrest, these slogans and other rallying cries conjured up a world where people could think that the impossible could be made possible, heaven could be made to appear in this world. These slogans and the rallying calls carried a mix of classical ideas, rhymes and rhythms, avant guard style, and exhorting words. The mix was heady and the bare English translations of these can hardly give us a sense of the brew, lethal for the forces of order and stability.

The movement also had literary sensibility. It called for the past literary acts to appear before the tribune of history to prove if those acts had been in the interests of the people or disprove that the literature produced earlier had served only the interests of the moneyed and the big gentry. Equally significantly, it also produced avant guard literature, music, drama, paintings, and even films. Theatre personalities like Utpal Dutt, poets like Birendra Chattopadhyay, Kamalesh Sen, well known essayists like Promod Sengupta, Amiya Chakrabarty, story writers and novelists like Mahasveta Devi, and journalists like Samar Sen and Bhavani Roy Chaudhury made the time aesthetically sensitive in a distinct sense. Some of the cultural productions of that time have become part of the abiding legacy for today's Bengal. In this utopian world, too good to last long but real at the same time, differences were effaced, as if the radical ranks did not suffer from any fault lines of identity of caste, gender, language, religion, etc. All were Red Guards. Parallel journals like Now, Frontier, Anushtup, Kalpurush—all avant guard initiatives flourished. Literacy campaigns among peasants, workers, and slum dwellers started. Jails became places of intense self-introspection and learning. They became universities. And make no mistake these were not Kolkata-centric. The mufossil towns of Bengal also immersed themselves in the second renaissance of Bengal. We shall have to interrogate our history deeply more than ever to understand, how say a journal like Kalpurush could become sharp and terse, or how from a political activist like Charu Mazumder's pen clear, lucid, unambiguous prose could come out inspiring hundreds of youth.

The question then we must ask: short lived as this heady period (1966-67 to 1970-71) was, and drowned in blood and finally caged in the prison houses of Bengal and elsewhere, how could politics and culture share the same space so intensely? This is not to say that the two sat easily with each other. Politics was extreme. It was not easy for cultural repertoires to march in same steps as of politics. There were divisions. For instance, Utpal Dutta broke ranks, some other literary activists were killed, yet some others quietly withdrew. But by and large, we may say, without the cultural repertoires Naxalbari movement would not have attained the glory associated with it.

But we should not be surprised. As in the time of Swadeshi, militant nationalist movement, any kind of death wish carries with it a spiritual strain. Why should I live if life cannot be spent meaningfully? What does death mean? What is inspiration? Questions like these, raised on the streets, did not derive their answers from politics. Aesthetic sensibility gave the answers. We may call this a kind of political spirituality. In this way the political subject became a subject writing own culture appropriate to a meaningful existence on earth.

Hence is the all important question of repertoire. What was the role of repertoire in creating the new politics that impacted so deeply on this country and specifically Bengal? If as earlier indicated, repertoires of politics changed, we must look deeply into how structures of mass politics changed in the fifties and sixties in Bengal and to different extents elsewhere in India. The cycles and tides of contention changed since the years of India-China border war of 1962, promulgation of Defence of India Rules, India-Pakistan war of 1965, widespread hunger, near famine condition in many parts of India in particular Bihar, and food riots in Bengal. Mass movements created instability in the ruling party, which cracked in many states, and this made possible for non-Congress governments to appear in many states for the first time. In such contentious time, collective claim makings increased. Every collective actor's interest was at risk. Therefore many actors mobilized for action. Such a period of rapid political change produced sequences of innovation in repertoires. Successive innovations largely accounted for the ebb and tide of radical activity.

No body willed that the Naxalbari movement would soon overflow the particular confines of a place called Naxalbari. No complex outcome ever results from the operation of a single causal mechanism. The diffusion of the mobilization techniques and the ascendancy of the street in politics were partly "non-relational" that is to say they had no direct correspondence with the actual land movement in Naxalbari. But organizational networks of students and youth and other political cadres took up the model of confrontation, street life, and spiritual interrogation of elite institutions. These mechanisms combined into processes, processes led to new coordination. Repertoires built up as a consequence of this collective process.

Other mechanisms contributed. Appropriation of earlier radical devices, creation of new boundaries of politics, China's certification, shift in the identity of politics, and escalation—all these contributed to radicalization. Repertoires changed as a result. A new ground was created. It was to be a common site of peasant activists and radical students and youth, factory organizers and literary practitioners. Yet it is also true that a repertoire change was inconceivable without regime change. The change in political regime in the wake of Nehru's death, currency devaluation, two wars, and emergence of non-Congress governments in some states of India formed the milieu in which political repertoires found new forms.

It will be worthwhile for all those interested in the fate of politics to see: How does a single incident produce movements and campaigns that break existing institutional frameworks? Under what conditions movements and campaigns ignite broader forms of contentious politics? Again, under what conditions does a movement create new bases? And thus what explains the multiplicity of centres within a movement, its openness to new actors, the inability of a regime to accommodate new claims, and finally how all these contribute to new repertoires of politics? Some answers to all these will not only help us to understand what happened in Bengal in 1967-68 or Paris in 1968 or Pakistan in 1968-70, but will also unlock many of the stalled situations today.

The answers will also mean new insights to our style of doing politics by which we mean revolutionary politics, when groups and sects assume responsibility for humanity, which demands many renunciations, because claiming that responsibility will be now considered as the highest task. This relationship of the truth of one's self—the revolutionary self—to the representation of that self to society is the subject of an eternal battle, a ghostly battle that a revolutionary time must carry on and will be always marked with. Therefore measure of the self will always accompany the task of measuring the transformation of society. All these bring us back to the question of mode of politics with which this note began.

Vol. 50, No.31, Feb 4 - 10, 2017