The Dream That Failed

Voices of Naxalbari across the 50 Years–I

Nazes Afroz

[Naxalites observed the 20th anniversary of Naxalbari uprising in 1987. And they marked the 50th anniversary in 2017. On both occasions Nazes Afroz visited the historice place of peasant rebellion and interviewd a number of participants who were still alive. We publish below comments made by those interviewees, originally published in Caravan on-line magazine. 1 June, 2017]

Bigul Kisan was in his early eighties when I interviewed him, in 1987. A man of slight build, shrunk further by advanced age, he no longer had the strength to farm the land for which he had nearly died. In 1967, Kisan was tilling, as he had been for decades, the land of Ishwar Tirkey, a Congress leader and landlord in the area around Naxalbari—a small market town in the Terai region of West Bengal, some 60 kilometres south of Darjeeling, from where the plains begin their ascent to the Himalayas. Like most farmers in the area, Kisan was a member of the Krishak Sabha, a peasant organisation of the country's largest communist party at the time, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Krishak Sabha, in a local meeting in March of that year, resolved that sharecroppers would take possession of their entire harvest, where before they had to give up half of it. On 21 May, when Kisan went to harvest his crop, Tirkey's men attacked him.

When news of the attack on Kisan spread, local peasants, many of them Adivasis, ransacked Tirkey's house. Tirkey had by then fled to the nearby town of Siliguri. On 24 May, an armed contingent of the police arrived to arrest the leaders of the uprising. The confrontation witnessed by Panchanan Sarkar, who was one of those leaders, ensued.

These events caused outrage all over West Bengal. Protesters, often led by rebel members of the CPI(M), came out onto the streets to denounce the state government. Thousands of young radicals quit the cities to wage revolution in the countryside. The next few years witnessed myriad revolts like the one in Naxalbari-across West Bengal, but also in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Bihar. These came to form part of a movement for the armed capture of state power that was named after the place where it all began—Naxalism. The pace with which militant sentiment spread took everyone, even the most ardent radicals, by surprise.

I travelled to Naxalbari in 1987, on assignment for the Bengali daily Aajkaal, to write and photograph for a series of articles looking back on the movement across the 20 years since its birth. By then, though various groups claiming the Naxalite mantle fought on in isolated pockets, it was clear that the movement had failed in its goals of taking over state power and completely transforming social and economic relations. Many people with deep experience of the movement were still around. Some had survived official persecution, jail time and often torture; many of their comrades had not. Many of them were old and in declining health. I found and spoke with everyone of them that I could.

This April, with the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising approaching, I visited Naxalbari again. Today, the Naxalite movement remains fractured, as it was 30 years ago. Yet it persists, with militant revolts active particularly across central and eastern India despite all the state might-from government-backed militias to large-scale military operations-deployed against them in the intervening decades. I spoke again to those of my interviewees from 1987 who were still alive. I also tracked down, in Naxalbari, Kolkata and elsewhere, others with knowledge or experience of the movement—family members of Naxalite leaders, former student activists, people who had joined the movement in later years, after the first flames of the Naxalbari revolt had died down. Many of them, the last generation with direct memory of the movement, are now nearing the ends of their lives too.

These are memories of some of the most debated-and, depending on ideological leanings, either glorified or vilified-events in Indian history, from many of those who were closest to them.

Bigul Kisan (1987)
I used to grow crops in the fields of IshwarTirkey. I had gone to take control of that land in accordance with the decision by the Krishak Sabha. But the goons of the landlord attacked me in the fields of Lahari Bura. They nearly crushed my head. They also took away my plough and oxen. In protest, peasants under the leadership of Prahlad Singh and Muzibur Rahman attacked the house of the landlord. The police came and arrested many on charges of rioting.

Panchanan Sarkar (1987)
Tempers frayed, and when the police resorted to firing the peasants replied by shooting their arrows. A police officer named Sonam Wangdi was hit by two arrows and died later in the day. The following day, on 25 May, the police came back with a bigger force and with a vengeance. By then, the men of the villages had gone into hiding and women were mobilised to stop the police from entering the villages to conduct their search operations. Groups of peasant women had put up roadblocks around Naxalbari. When one police contingent reached the village of Prasadujote, on the edges of Naxalbari town, it was stopped by one such group of women. The officers pleaded with the women to let them pass. After they got passage, they came back soon and opened fire on the group, killing nine women and two young children.

Ashim Chattopadhyay (1987)
When the women and children were killed in 1967, we had no idea what was going on there. The media gave scant coverage of the event. With whatever little information we had, we put up the first posters on the walls of Presidency College supporting the brave and revolutionary peasants of Naxalbari. The very next day, we saw that the whole of College Street was covered with posters supporting the peasants of Naxalbari.

Ranabir Samaddar (2017)
From 1966 to 1970 were the years of campus uprisings in Europe and America. We witnessed heightened anti-imperialist activity all over the world. The Tet Offensive was taking place in Vietnam. The youth in India were also looking for a way to change things permanently. Basically, they were challenging the old order and centres of authority. They were saying, "Who are you to rule? What are our roles then? Who is the ruler and who is the subject?"

Editorial in People's Daily (5 July, 1967)
A peal of spring thunder has crashed over the land of India. Revolutionary peasants in the Darjeeling area have risen in rebellion. Under the leadership of a revolutionary group of the Indian Communist Party a red area of rural revolutionary armed struggle has been established in India. …India is a vast semi-colonial and semi-feudal country with a population of 500 million, the absolute majority of which, the peasantry, once aroused, will become the invincible force of the Indian revolution. By integrating itself with peasants, the Indian proletariat will be able to bring about earth-shaking changes in the vast countryside of India and defeat any powerful enemy in a soul-stirring people's war. …Armed struggle is the only correct road for the Indian revolution; there is no other road whatsoever. Such trash as "Gandhi-ism", "parliamentary road" and the like are opium used by the Indian ruling classes to paralyse the Indian people. …The spark in Darjeeling will start a prairie fire and will certainly set the vast expanses of India ablaze.

Charu Majumder
‘The Main Task Today is the Struggle to Build up the True Revolutionary Party Through Uncompromising Struggle Against Revisionism’, August 1966.

The meaning of the Party Activist Groups today is that they will be "combat units". Their main duty will be political propaganda and to strike against counter-revolutionary forces. We should always keep in mind Mao Zedong's teaching—"Attacks are not for the sake of attacking merely, attacks are for annihilating only". Those who should be attacked are mainly : (1) the representatives of the state machinery like police, military officers; (2) the hated bureaucracy; (3) class enemies.

Sunil Ghosh (1987)
Charu-da brought me into the Communist party in 1942. I've hardly ever seen such an outstanding personality. I still read his writings to clear many of my doubts. …Charu Majumder had a deep sense of affection for the peasants. I learned from him how peasants can analyse and solve their own problems. I remember, once a party comrade had come and said to Charu-da that a Muslim peasant comrade was still offering his prayers. Charu-da became really angry with the person and said to him, "What's wrong with that? Would he become more revolutionary like you if he wasn't offering his namaaz? When the state repression comes, we will see who has more revolutionary zeal. You will see how this peasant will stand his ground. And smartly dressed middle-class people like you will then either flee or become informers of the police".

Jangal Santhal (1987)
We thought we were the government, the home ministry was being held by our leader, and hence the police wouldn't take any action against us when the peasants ransacked Ishwar Tirkey's house. Our minister, Hare Krishna Konar, came to hold a meeting with us, the local leaders, after the incident, and advised us not to surrender to the police in the cases that were lodged against many of us. But, after he left for Siliguri, the administration decided to send armed police to arrest us and other peasants. That was betrayal, grave betrayal.

The Assembly Elections in West Bengal in early 1967 saw the Congress deposed for the first time in the state's history, and brought to power the United Front, a leftist coalition that included the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The CPI(M) had been formed just a few years earlier by breakaway members of the Communist Party of India, who termed the older party "revisionist." Now they controlled the West Bengal government-including the ministry of land, placed under Hare Krishna Konar-and activists such as Jangal Santhal, a charismatic Adivasi leader, were convinced that the power of their state was on their side.

They had other reasons to feel that conditions were ripe for revolution. In 1946, before Bengal was partitioned between India and Pakistan, peasants across the province rose up to demand, among other things, the right to keep two-thirds of their produce, and surrender only a third of it to their landlords. This became the Tebhaga movement, led by the CPI. That same year, in Hyderabad State, a peasant rebellion saw the killing and displacement of landowners across thousands of villages, and the redistribution of large tracts of land. The rebellion continued even after the bloody annexation of Hyderabad State by the newly independent Indian union in 1948, and the CPI took up leadership of this movement too. Soon afterwards, following severe repression by state forces, the CPI called an end to both movements, to the displeasure of the party's more radical members. But the CPI's base among the West Bengal peasantry, built up during the Tebhaga movement, remained, as did the idea of militant action, which both movements cultivated.

The peasants of the Terai region renewed their agitation for land reform in 1955. Led by the CPI, they also allied with tea-plantation workers, who were demanding better wages. But in 1959, even as thousands of protesting peasants and tea-plantation workers refused to stand down in the face of suppression by the police, the party leadership decided to retreat and rein them in. That same year, an acute food shortage spurred urban unrest and violence, and dozens were killed at the hands of the police in Kolkata. In 1966, another food crisis caused more urban protests, and police action left dozens dead once again. Public anger against the government and ruling establishment was threatening to boil over.

The United Front government's decision to suppress the Naxalbari revolt destroyed any illusions of state support for leaders such as Jangal Santhal, himself a member of the CPI(M). Supporters of the uprising began to turn against the party and were emboldened by expressions of support from the Communist Party of China, first over Radio Peking and then in the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece. As the Naxalite movement grew and dissent escalated, in 1969 a group under CharuMajumder, a radical leader long active in Darjeeling district, which includes Naxalbari, broke away from the CPI(M) to form the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Several state-level leaders of the CPI(M), and a large number of old-time cadres such as Sunil Ghosh, flocked to the new party, as did students such as Ranabir Samaddar and Ashim Chatto-padhyay. The following year, Chatto-padhyay became the youngest member of the new party's central committee. Today, he is a political commentator in Kolkata, and the only surviving member of the committee.

Majumder's prominence owed in large part to the political line he propounded of pursuing revolution through the annihilation of "class enemies," and forsaking all mass organisations. He officially formulated what came to be known as the "annihilation line" in late 1968, following a rebel attack on a police outpost in Andhra Pradesh that left three officers dead. It became the guiding principle of the CPI(M-L).

The more violence the CPI(M-L) unleashed, the more state repression came down on its activists and supporters. In Naxalbari, it fell to people such as Abhay Das, then an Intelligence Bureau officer posted in Naxalbari and now a retiree living in the area, to deliver the government's vengeance. Those Naxalite activists who were not killed-including the CPI(M-L) leaders Punjab Rao, Shanti Munda and Kesab Sarkar, and on-the-ground activists such as Muzibur Rahman, were either arrested or forced to go underground.

Shanti Munda (1987)
Most of the people and activists who had joined the struggle with us in 1967 would say that the ideological line we had adopted then was right. The common peasants at that time had a strong conviction in their dream of changing the social order, and they joined the movement with great spontaneity. The situation, however, started changing in 1968, as we adopted the politics of annihilation. Antisocial elements started entering the party, taking full advantage of our newly adopted political line. City-bred youngsters, who had by then joined our movement too, started misinterpreting our line and took to killing people randomly, damaging our image among the people. It adversely affected our identity, making us seem merely a bunch of violent people to be scared of. A large number of common peasants had been killed too during that time, in the name of annihilating the class enemies.

Ashim Chattopadhyay (2017)
At the beginning, we had accepted the annihilation line. When we started out in 1967, we had 20,000 peasants with us in Midnapore district, where I was based. In the year and a half after the party was formed, our squads had killed 120 so-called class enemies. According to Charu-da's line, more and more peasants were supposed to have joined us with the killing of these class enemies. But we were left with a mere 220, as the peasants could not withstand the state repression or they disapproved of such killings. So it was evident that the annihilation line failed to mobilise more support for the movement.

Kanu Sanyal (1968)
‘Report on the Peasant Movement in the Terai Region’.

About 15,000 to 20,000 peasants began to do full-time work to build up peasant committees in villages. The young men of the villages who had never before been seen in the front ranks of the Kisan Sabha now occupied the place of veteran peasant cadres. With the speed of a storm the revolutionary peasants, in the course of about one and a half months, formed peasant committees through hundreds of group meetings and turned these committees into armed village-defence groups. In a word, they organised about 90 percent of the village population. This action of the peasants completely changed all our old ideas about organisation.

We were unable to raise the struggle firmly to a higher stage because we failed to rely wholly on the people and to build a powerful mass base. We now admit frankly that we had no faith in the heroic peasant masses, who, swift as a storm, organised themselves, formed revolutionary peasant committees, completed the ten great tasks and advanced the class struggle at a swift pace during the period from April to September 1967. We did not realise that it is the people who make history, that they are the real heroes, that the people can organise themselves and can amaze all by their own completely new style of work.

Abhay Das (1987) (Police Officer)
They adopted the "annihilation of class enemies" line and at the same time a large number of anti-social elements started making their way inside the party. We took full advantage of this. As I have already mentioned, we had informers implanted within them.

One has to accept the immense popularity of the movement that Charu-babu had initiated. If not for his line of annihilation, it would have been difficult for us to suppress the movement. From the initial phase of the movement, they took a few very wrong steps, and we obviously made full use of these opportunities. We could infiltrate the rank and file of their organisation with our informers. We could have all the information we wanted. Take, for instance, the case of Babulal Biswakarma. We heard that a meeting was taking place on the land of Hochai Mullick. The informer was one of the participants, and he was there at the meeting too. At midnight, we surrounded the place. Everyone other than Biswakarma managed to escape. Biswakarma tried to hide in a bamboo grove next to the house. We started firing, and so did Biswakarma. Biswakarma's bullet missed our circle inspector and instead the informer was shot in his hand. He lost three fingers in this incident. Later in the night, when Biswakarma tried to crawl out of the grove, a constable noticed him and shot him dead. Today, the informer who had lost his fingers has a government job.

Kanu Sanyal was arrested in a similar way from Nunujot. We were lucky there. When we surrounded the house, the person in charge of lookout had dozed off. Hence there was no such exchange of firing. After arresting him, we realised that they had enough arms with which they could put up a tough fight for a long time.

Punjab Rao (1987)
We started losing the stronghold that we once had within our own mass organisations. Our appeal among our own organisations with the tea-plantation workers and mechanics started declining, and soon we realised that we had no place to take shelter after conducting our guerrilla actions. Just as a fish cannot live outside water, so we slowly started becoming alienated from the conditions of social reality and very soon lost all touch with the people of the soil, and this obviously affected our movement adversely.

Muzibur Rahman (2017)
We did not understand the line of the annihilation of class enemies, but we went along with it. We could not even identify who the class enemies were. We used to wait for instructions from the top leaders. …We were not much aware of all the political lines that we needed to follow to make the revolution possible. The urban, college-educated people brought in all sorts of theories, which ultimately disintegrated our efforts.

Kesab Sarkar (1987)
After our release from prison in 1968, we could not control the situation. At that point we decided to boycott the elections [of 1969]. That was a mistake too. Why boycott the elections? We couldn't explain that to the masses. Charu Majumder's line of annihilation of class enemies continued into the 1970s. As a result, we became completely disconnected with the greater population. People became scared of the Naxalites. They couldn't support us anymore.

Even as it became clear that the annihilation line was failing, the CPI (M-L) was left rudderless. The problem was compounded by the nature of the leadership-dominated by a small coterie of men mostly from urban and upper-class backgrounds, and so often disconnected from the masses. Barring rare exceptions such as Jangal Santhal, Adivasis did not rise to positions of real influence despite the fact that they constituted a large part of the movement's activists and sympathisers. Members of the oppressed castes were similarly excluded. Women were too. Shanti Munda, for example, was a prominent young activist in Naxalbari in 1967, but she never rose above a grass-roots role in the party. Kanu Sanyal, a co-founder of the CPI (M-L) whose Terai report outlined an alternative to the annihilation line and might have provided some new direction, was removed from active participation in the movement when he was arrested in 1970.

In the midst of crisis, many CPI (M-L) leaders looked to China for guidance and support. A contingent of Naxalite leaders had established contact with the Communist Party of China and travelled to meet Mao in 1967, some months after the Naxalbari uprising began. One of them was Khudon Mallick, who, now in his seventies, still lives in a mud hut a few kilometres from Naxalbari. In 1970, the CPI(M-L) sent Souren Bose on a new mission to Beijing, via London and Albania.

Khudon Mallick (2017)
Four of us—Kanu Sanyal, Dipak Biswas, Khokon Majumder and I—went to the Debijhora tea estate in West Dinajpur district, close to the East Pakistan border. We hid there for a few months, and established contact with the East Pakistan Communist Party to send a message to the Chinese consulate in Dhaka. We were told not to come to Pakistan, but instead to go to Kathmandu, in Nepal. We made our way to Kathmandu through Darbhanga and Raxaul in Bihar, in September 1967. There we met the Chinese ambassador, who asked us to lie low for a few days. After about a week, we were smuggled to the border with Tibet in a truck carrying construction materials. Local guides took us into Tibet, where the People's Liberation Army took charge. They took us to Lhasa, where we stayed for another week before we were taken to Peking. There we were met by the Communist Party of China's central-committee member Kang Sheng.

We stayed in China for nearly two and a half months. We were taken to Hunan to see the Red Army's training centre. We were trained in guerrilla fighting. We were also taken to see how farms owned by communes were run. We saw how the farmer men and women worked in the fields while their children were being looked after by the commune. We also went to Shanghai to visit some big factories.

Finally we met Premier Zhou Enlai, in December, and the following day we met Mao. He was seated in a large room. He spoke to us through translators. There were two translators who had studied Bangla in Dhaka, and two who spoke Hindi and had studied in India. Finally he said, "Only you can bring about a revolution in India." He dubbed the CPI "revisionist," and the CPI(M) "neo-revisionist." He said they wouldn't carry out any revolution. He also said to us, "You can do it if you remain on the right path. But you should not blindly follow China's model. Also, never let a divide creep in between the peasant and worker and the leadership."

After the meeting with Chairman Mao, we came back to India using the same route. Kanu Sanyal reported on our trip to China to Charu Majumder.

Souren Bose (1987)
Charu-babu shortly became the "Dear Leader" of the party, whose words became the final word when decisions were to be made. Every time there was a difference of opinions, comrades were asked whether they were for or against the Dear Leader. In case of any opposition, comrades who dared to question him found themselves tagged as reformists.

Aashim Chattopadhyay (2017)
Souren Bose came back from China in 1970. We were keen to know how the Communist Party of China was assessing our work and progress. We heard that the CPC had scathing criticism of our political lines. They had termed the line of annihilation a grave mistake. They also said that mass organisations were the labour rooms of revolution, so forsaking mass organisations was another great mistake. They also mentioned that we had failed in offering any land policy. Finally, they had said that anarchy was not revolution.

We heard that Souren-da had returned from China and submitted his report to Charu-da. But his report wasn't shared with the rest of the party. As a member of the central committee, I demanded to see the report from our party's general secretary, Saroj Dutta. He told me that he would arrange it. We hoped that there would be an organised retreat from the mistakes we had made, but were told by the leadership that our party line would continue as before, and that there was support for us from the CPC. We realised that the leadership was trying to manage the situation.

Abhay Das (1987)
It is true that if Charu-babu had not fallen sick and had remained as active as he was before, our job would have been much tougher.

[to be concluded]

Vol. 50, No.44, May 06 - 12, 2018