How to Look At History

First Decade of Frontier

Aloke Mukherjee

[This year Frontier is celebrating 50 years of its continual struggle for survival. Autumn Number 2018 is actually 50th anniversary number. And this special issue which will be out in the second week of October, carries a number of articles on the theme "Frontier 50". Aloke Mukherjee's article 'First Decade of Frontier' may serve as a curtain-raiser.]

It was early 1968. The news spread among the revolutionary democrats like wild fire that in the first half of April, Samar Sen's new magazine would hit the news stands. The D Day came and my friend Asim (Asim Datta) brought a copy for me. It was an exciting experience. The flavour coming out of the new magazine was not that of a new paper only, but of the boldness and never-give-up attitude of its editor, of good wishes of the readers.

Time is a queer thing. Fifty years have passed since then. Sometimes it seems to be eons and eons back, but reading the first copy of Frontier, its first publication seems to be an event that happened just a few days ago. It contained one article on "black revolution" (till then the word Afro-American was not in vogue) in the USA, some articles on Vietnam, Calcutta Diary by Charan Gupta, and a few more pieces. The message was loud and clear. It was a magazine that would relentlessly oppose the reactionaries, criticise the pseudo-lefts and uphold the ideals of the revolutionary left.

So, through its editorials, and more often than not through its articles, it openly upheld the cause of the communist revolutionaries, popularly known as Naxalites. One piece that still stirs my feelings was the Calcutta Diary written on the eve of the Autumn Festival where in the same tune as that of the great song "where have all the flowers gone", the diarist asked most vociferously where all the boys who used to take the college street under seize had gone. They had not gone to enjoy the festival or to take rest under the care of their mothers, but they had gone to live among the poor peasantry in the remote villages in order to spread the message of revolution.

Frontier was opposed to all reactionary ideas and was critical of the pseudo lefts, but that did not imply that it would support all the activities of the communist revolutionaries blindly without scrutiny. Rather it acted as a platform where revolutionary democrats could freely explain their opinions. In some cases, it invited the wrath of the most organised section of communist revolutionaries, the CPI(M-L). Some articles, e.g. those by Rafikul Islam and Asok Rudra, were bitterly attacked by Saroj Datta, writing under the non de plume Sasanka, in Deashabrati, the Bengali organ of the CPI(M-L). But Frontier did not change its orientation. When state terrorism engulfed the whole of Bengal as well as India, and communist revolutionaries were rampantly killed in cold blood, Frontier did not spare the arbiters of state power. It raises voices of protest against the Cossipore-Baranagar masscare, the Barasat killings and many other events of extra-legal state violence. The tone of protest was so loud and clear that thanks to Frontier, the outside world came to know of the happenings in India. The editor of Frontier was under police surveillance; but he took it with rare stoicism. The role of Frontier during this phase was clearly expressed by Samar Sen himsef in the Foreword of "Naxalbari and After: A Frontier Anthology". He wrote: "Naxalbari exploded many a myth and restored faith in the courage and character of the revolutionary left in India. It seemed that the ever yawning gap between precept and practice would be bridged. Indeed the upheaval was such that nothing remained the same after Naxalbari. People had to readjust their position vis-vis-vis every aspect of the system: political, administrative, military, cultural.

"Frontier reflected the new trend. Many minds found expression in it— critical, brilliant, flamboyant, impetuous, analytical, crude, romantic, intrepid minds. Though not a participant, Frontier became associated with the movement". (Italics by the present author)

That association brought both flowers and brickbats, but Frontier moved on like the proverbial elephant in the market. One could find reports from Andhra to Birbhum, the truth behind the Dum Dum Jail massacre on 14 May, 1971. At the same time, many articles of theoretical importance were also published and debated in the pages of Frontier. I still remember the debate between Mani Guha and Arun Majumdar on whether the concept of principal contradiction was a new addition by Mao Zedong to the treasure of Marxism. The latter argued in support of it while the former, with his versatile knowledge about not only theoretical but also practical aspects of the policies practised under Lenin and Stalin opposed it. At some point, the debate took an acrimonious turn. Mani Guha titled his article, "A False Brother". The term False Brother, used by Lenin, here had a double meaning because Arun Majumdar was the elder brother of the martyr Ashu Majumdar, who died a hero's death. Frontier later published an article on principal contradiction by Dick Wenscott (pseudonym). There he hinted that in India, the principal contradiction was between the alliance of imperialism, comprador bureaucratic capitalism and feudalism on one side and the broad masses of people on the other. Today most of the communist revolutionaries have accepted this formulation, but during those days, only a microscopic minority in the movement agreed to it; their view received little circulation. Before that, Frontier published some more important writings that strongly influenced the movement, e.g. the letter by six top naxalite leaders on the suggestions given by the Communist Party of China and the calls for unity of various factions of the CPI(M-L). Sometimes later, Frontier also published "More about Naxalbari", an article by Kanu Sanyal, one of the signatories of six leaders' letter. A letter by 'Kranti Kumar' on unity of communist revolutionaries opposed Sanyal's position. Many other letters and articles on this subject were also published by Frontier.

From 1974 onwards, Frontier, however, increasingly became the mouthpiece of those who were working for the release of political prisoners. Even during the days of the infamous Emergency, Frontier was perhaps the only journal—keeping in mind journals like People's Democracy—that relentlessly exposed and opposed, in its own way, the terroristic acts of the state in every aspect of life—political, economic and social. It opposed the idea of "committed judiciary". After the setback and fragmentation in the movement Frontier acted as the medium for promoting understanding among different sections of communist revolutionaries, who were then underground or in prison. Sometimes they used this opportunity for mud-slinging, sometimes they iterated the pledge to unite the movement, sometimes they came up with concrete steps to be taken towards that end. Then came the year 1977 and the defeat of Fascist Indira clique. In West Bengal, the Left Front came to power. The people poured all their support to the Janata Government at the centre as well as the Left Front Government in West Bengal. Even some of the revolutionaries started talking about "critical support". But Frontier did not nurture such illusions and took a clear position. So long as real democracy is not achieved, and so long as oppressors and oppressed will be there, Frontier would stand up for democracy, for the oppressed. It would be associated with the struggles of the oppressed, exploited people.

Thanks to the movement for the release of political prisoners, almost all such prisoners were either released or were in the process of release. It must be recognized that Frontier, in different states of India, acted as the mouthpiece of the activists struggling for the release of political prisoners.

Thus the first decade of Frontier in a word covered a full circle. Everybody knows that the birth of this weekly was due to the end of Samar Sen's association with NOW. And the reason behind it was increasing radicalisation of NOW, which included criticism of the establishment of the left. Then the first ten years gradually but clearly set a path for the weekly, which continued to be followed faithfully by Samar Sen and after his demise, by the able hands of Timir Basu.

The foregoing is not purported to be history, but only to provide an understanding about how to look at the history of Frontier. "History acquires meaning and objectivity only when it establishes a coherent relation between past and future". [E H Carr, What is history?]. The purpose here is to put a sketch of the first decade of Frontier in order to acquire that meaning and objectivity.

Vol. 51, No.12, Sep 23 - 29, 2018