The Dream That Failed

Voices of Naxalbari across the 50 Years–II

Nazes Afroz

The First Public Cracks in the CPI(M-L) appeared with the start of the 1970s. Satyanarayan Singh, the party's secretary in Bihar, denounced the annihilation line, and formed a parallel central committee that "expelled" Charu Majumder. Majumder retaliated by expelling Singh from the CPI(M-L). Some party leaders broke ranks to join Singh's splinter group. Other leaders who began to criticise Majumder, including Ashim Chattopa-dhyay, were expelled too.

Charu Majumder was arrested from a hideout in Kolkata on 16 July 1972, on information from a comrade who cracked under police torture. By then he was suffering from acute cardiac asthma and needed constant medical supervision. The police interrogated him for 12 days. It is widely believed that his medication and treatment were stopped in custody, leading to his death from cardiac arrest on 28 July.

After that, the CPI(M-L) splintered into numerous new factions. Some professed allegiance to Majumder's line of seizing state power by armed means and continued to operate underground. Three of the largest such groups have, since the turn of the century, merged into the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which the Indian government lists as a terrorist organisation. Others renounced violence and joined parliamentary politics. Ashim Chattopadhyay, who was imprisoned between 1972 and 1978, was one of numerous former CPI(M-L) leaders who pursued this path upon release. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, a surviving faction of the CPI(M-L), runs mass organisations and contests elections in several states today.

In 1977, West Bengal held a fresh assembly election. The CPI(M) emerged strongest, and formed a ruling coalition, the Left Front, headed by Jyoti Basu, who had been the state's deputy chief minister under the United Front. The Left Front retained power through successive elections until 2011.

Foreword to Frontier magazine's anthology on the Naxalbari movement 1978
Indeed the upheaval was such that nothing remained the same after Naxalbari.

Punjab Rao 1987
When we returned in the area in 1977, we were completely broken. …The socio-economic situation too had changed to some extent by then. There were no big landlords, and most of the land had been taken over and distributed among the landless peasants. This obviously led to the emergence and increase of a new middle-class peasant group that was no longer interested in any sort of revolution.

Panchanan Sarkar 1987
Times have changed now. The economy has changed. Jyoti Basu is a shrewd man. He's taking up programmes that have put the spotlight on him. But he's only doing it for the middle class. There are sops for the middle class, school teachers etc to influence them. There are no proper programmes for the downtrodden. Their condition is worsening day by day. In the villages around here, it's difficult for a peasant to earn two square meals these days. Things can't go on like this for long. Possibly there will be another outburst. Maybe the people will rise up again.

I can now see that there are so many divisions and how everyone wants to become a leader. The net result is so many parties and so many leaders. And the work of revolution has gone on the backburner.

I now see that everyone blames Charu Majumder for all the failures. But how is that possible? We all made mistakes, and we had various misleading ideas. How else could a passionate cadre like Dipak Biswas have given up Charu Majumder's hideout under police torture?

Dipanjan Raichaudhuri 2017
We didn't understand the politics of the Indian state. We didn't understand how difficult it was to challenge the state. People also didn't understand what we were trying to do. We had neither a strong party structure nor manpower. In China, the revolution was possible as there was no functioning and organised state, unlike in India.

There was no role of the working class, meaning the peasants and workers, in the decision-making of the party. It wasn't a proletarian party. In fact, that has been the tragedy of the communist movement in India. There were no proletarian ideas in the communist parties from the beginning.

Santosh Rana 2017
The impact and the legacy of the movement can be assessed from various sides. I contested the state-assembly elections in 1977 from my base in Gopiballabh-pur, in Medinipur district. Elections were taking place soon after the Emergency was lifted by Indira Gandhi, and we had hardly any organisation. Despite that, I won. But I lost in 1982. We realised that even some of the most radicalised villages in the area had gone over to the CPI(M) as it pays to be on the side of the ruling party.

The other legacy of the uprising can be traced in the total land reform programme of Operation Barga that the CPI(M) undertook when it came to power in 1977. Like the way we did, the new Left Front government publicly settled land ownership and distributed the rights to the sharecroppers.

AFTER IT TOOK POWER in 1977, the Left Front government launched Operation Barga, which guaranteed sharecroppers larger portions of their produce, and confiscated landowners' holdings above a set ceiling to redistribute them to peasants. But the programme was criticised for not doing enough to help the poor. When I visited Naxalbari in 1987, there were no longer any big landowners in the area, but crop prices were low and even landed peasants continued to live in hardship. A sharply rising population also meant that the available land could not sustain many among the younger generations. To make a living, a large share of the people had turned to illegal activity, including logging and the smuggling of Chinese goods from across the nearby border with Nepal. There was no real prosperity, but enough money was coming in to fuel some new stores and four cinema halls in the Naxalbari bazaar.

Several former CPI(M-L) leaders, some of them just released from prison, contested the 1977 election. Santosh Rana, who had joined Satyanarayan Singh's breakaway group in 1971, stood as a candidate for this faction. He became, and remains, the only former Naxalite leader to win an assembly seat.

Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, one of the many student leaders who joined the movement, served a prison term before going on to teach physics at colleges in Kolkata. Numerous other imprisoned student leaders, including Ranabir Samaddar, also returned to cities and pursued professional careers.

Most surviving leaders and activists from the Naxalbari area returned to the lives they had interrupted. Punjab Rao was still tilling his land near Naxalbari when I spoke to him in 1987. Shanti Munda returned to her family, and later stood, without success, as a legislative-assembly candidate for the Communist Organisation of India (Marxist-Leninist), an outfit founded in 1985 and led by Kanu Sanyal. Munda still lives in her village near Naxalbari, and, having earlier parted ways with Sanyal, is now involved with another communist faction.

I met an ageing Kanu Sanyal in 1987, in a village just a few kilometres from Naxalbari. He lived an austere life, and remained passionate about political struggle. I found him, mending a torn shirt, in the small room of a thatched hut that housed the office of his CPI(M-L). In 2010, in that same hut, he committed suicide, hanging himself from a ceiling fan.

Santosh Rana 2017
The economic condition of the peasantry has changed. Fifty years ago they could eat properly for three months, and for the remaining nine months of the year they were half-fed. But now they at least have two square meals a day. All this might not have been possible without the Naxalbari uprising.

Shanti Munda 2017
People are in bad shape these days. They can't find jobs. They're not able to sustain their families. If you take a survey locally, you'll see that one or more members of almost every household are migrating to cities or even other parts of India like Haryana and even Kerala. Such is the miserable situation of the area.

We could see our enemies before-the landlords-but these days we don't even know who our enemies are. We don't see landlords anymore. Powerful people are in various professions-business, or even in teaching.

Dipu Halder 2017
Farmers are not keen to keep their land anymore, as they can't make enough money out of it. So they are selling their land as there's high demand for land for housing. Many people of Nepali origin are moving here after being forced out of Assam and Manipur, and they are offering good prices for land close to the highway.

Even Jangal Santhal's son Upen sold his father's land, which he inherited. We tried hard to convince him not to, but he said, "'It's my land and I'll sell it." We told him that he wouldn't be left with anything if he sold his father's land. After we intervened, he initially said he wouldn't, but finally he sold it secretly.

Consumerism has taken root in the surrounding villages. Even Adivasi women now regularly go to beauty parlours to get their make-up done. There's also the attraction of branded items. It has become impossible to convey political messages to the people in this area.

Dipanjan Raichaudhuri 2017
We still tend to look at things in the old Left ways, which needs to change. We now need radical thinking under the working class. There are few serious people. What we need is a real party of the working class.

What's happening in Chhattisgarh or in Jangal Mahal in West Bengal under the leadership of the Maoists is a repeat of the old ways. The armed struggles are not supplemented by mass organisations. There's a mismatch between what the Maoists want us to believe and the reality.

Ashim Chattopadhyay 2017
I say the CPI(M-L) was formed over the grave of the Naxalbari uprising, killing its spirit. I also think the current Maoists are the same-they have built their party on the graves of the CPI(M-L), mythical story widely circulated during the naxalbari uprising.

Jangal Santhal is coming, riding a horse, with a sword in one hand and a gun in the other. The landlords are fleeing the area, fearing his wrath.

Shanti Munda 1987
A large number of peasants did wait for Jangal to come out of jail and lead them like before. But when Jangal was finally released, we saw him taking favours from the state, like a permit to run a bus. We were crestfallen. We realised that he too has shifted his allegiance to the government.

NAXALBARI AND ITS SURROUNDINGS are far more developed now than they were when I visited three decades ago. I found numerous new roads, schools, colleges and markets, and improved communication with Siliguri, now a significant economic centre. A higher level of consumerism has penetrated the area. The main road through Naxalbari is lined with shops selling frozen food, alcohol, branded clothes and much more. But the biggest change I found was the peoples' growing sense of alienation from their land. Many from the area's villages have moved away, to other parts of West Bengal and beyond, looking for livelihoods. Only a few communist activists remain-people such as Dipu Halder, who was too young to join the uprising in 1967 but became a comrade of Kanu Sanyal in 1977. Today, she is the Darjeeling district secretary for the reconstituted Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninst), which Sanyal led in the last years of his life.

One of the people I most wanted to track down on my visit this year was Lakshmi Santhal, Jangal Santhal's daughter from his second wife, Bahmani. I had met her in 1987, when she was about ten years old, in the wretched hut where the family lived, in a village outside Naxalbari. She had posed for a photograph with her father. By then, Jangal Santhal's legend had faded. After his release from prison, in 1977, he tried to join forces again with Sanyal, but he had taken to drinking heavily, and was criticised for taking help from the Left Front to support his family. He and Sanyal fell out within a few years. In 1989, a year and a half after I met him, he drank himself to death.

I travelled to the family's home for three days in a row. Bahmani told me Lakshmi was working as a daily-wage labourer in the nearby town of Bagdogra, leaving home early in the morning and coming back late in the evening. I never managed to arrive early enough, or stay late enough, to meet her. I could not help thinking that this was surely not the future Jangal Santhal would have wanted for his child when he took up arms in 1967.


[Nazes Afroz is former executive editor for BBC World Service, South and Central Asia. He has been visiting Afghanistan regularly since 2002 and has co-authored a cultural guidebook on Afghanistan.]

Vol. 50, No.45, May 13 - 19, 2018