Book Review

A Chronicle of Leftist Movement in Bengal

Prodosh Nath

For me this autobiographical account (*Rajnitir Ek Jibon by Santosh Rana) of the tumultuous political environment of Bengal during late 60's and 70's,the period that is known as the peak of Naxalbari movement, is a statement on what is ailing the leftist movement in Bengal in particular and India in general.Here is an account from a person who had the best inside view (both organisation, and its strategy and actions towards revolution) but has the élan to look in as an observer. Rana shows the facility for language and style of writing autobiography that is about the public life he had spent as one of the Naxals, as they used to be called. This is an autobiography that very skilfully avoids romanticisation of the doers and their deeds.

The memoir is not around the personalities of the time and its politics. Instead it is around the events that defined the period of his political life coinciding with what is popularly known as Naxalite movement. This unique style is meticulously followed throughout. So, we do not have romanticised stories of heroes and their heroics. Or how the young revolutionaries withstood the tortures in the jails, or how did they overcome the fear of death. Nor does it talk about Rana or/and his compatriots' achievements or lack of it; as heroes or tragic heroes. The importance of the book is in the fact that it narrates the shaping of the events that were happening during that time, and also along with that the shaping of Rana himself, and other comrades. In the process he indicates where they went wrong, and what was the shortcomings of their assessment of the revolutionary conditions.

Rana's account of the most vociferous of leftist politics in India is the most relevant in today's political environment of utter despair, where leftist voice is practically decimated without even a whisper, and right-wing juggernaut is being seen as the messiah of all aspirations of young and old generations alike.

Rana gives an account of how the politics based on mobilisation of oppressed people through issue-based mass movement has been replaced by the politics of elimination of class enemies. Quite a few lessons are to be drawn from the saga of mobilisation and alienation of the revolutionaries fromthe toiling, exploited masses.

Rana writes—many committed students from colleges in Calcutta responded to the call for agrarian revolution, left their colleges for villages where poor farmers were being organised to protest against age-old practices of exploitation. Charu Majumdar was undisputed leader for these students, who had unflinching zeal for revolution. Clear instruction from Charu Majumdar has been that those who would be going to join the movement in the villages should not carry anything else other than lungi, gamcha and a copy of the Red Book. This would help them to become one of the oppressed masses, who are poverty stricken, exploited. Rana credits Charu Majumdar for drawing lessons from his experience in the Tebhaga movement. He knew that carrying firearms etc to the villages would invite anti-socials, and would alienate the villagers.

Rana narrates, how a few small local events like fighting for a tribal landless labourer who was being harassed by the jotedar-moneylender, or being with the petty share cropper farmer for harvesting the crop that otherwise would have been taken away by the landlord, had helped them to earn the trust of the villagers; the trust that they were there to fight for the rights of the oppressed. Such actions made petty farmers, landless labourers confident to assert their rights and also trust their new found friends among the stranger Naxals.

In between, as Rana observed, there were a few attempts to identify and eliminate the class enemies.Then there has been interesting turn of the event. The same Charu Majumdar who taught the young students, impatient to be part of a glorious history in the making, how to win the trust of the poor and oppressed, suggested a radical change in the strategy. He dubbed the earlier actions as Economism, and not revolutionary enough. Only path to revolution, as exalted now by him, is through the elimination of class enemies. The result was totally isolating the movement from the Trade Unions and Student Organisations who had shown solidarity with the movement. Along with this line came school and college boycott, burning down schools, and also dismantling the statues of the personalities, who are generally revered for brining in significant changes in the social, economic and cultural lives of the common people of the land. Rana makes two important points on this turn of the event. First, how this strategy alienated them from the common suffering villagers, whose trust they earned following Charu Majumadar's earlier advice. Second, the process and the ways the new strategy has been inducted as party line for revolution without going through critical reviews at different levels. Rana indicates the insidious entry of autocratic and bureaucratic vices in the organisation at this stage. The new belief was the need of a commander, or an authority to steer the revolution. It was accepted that Charu Majumder was the authority of the revolution that was to be steered in India. Similarly, the regions and locals were also asked to select their commanders or authorities. Killings of class enemies have been accepted as undisputable strategy towards revolution. It was decided that the first foundation day would be celebrated through such killings in different regions. In Rana's area of work there were three killings of class enemies in a day, one of them was a poor Brahmin. The killings caused fear among the common people of the area. Rana writes—there was notable ebb in the responses they received from the poor farmers during harvesting movement. It was, however, thought that more such killings would help allaying the fear of the common people. Such killings reached 100 in numbers and with that the more alienation of the party workers from the common masses.

Another important insight is related to the question of caste and class. In another occasion I have tried to explain the difference between the two-Caste as devalorised labour, and hence a religio-cultural identity. Labour as one unifying identity, as it is in Marx, is quite laboured, and too abstract to be the foundation of a revolutionary organisation. Indian Marxist parties, instead of understanding the nuances of Marxian thought, tried to straitjacket into the Marxist formulation of social changes. As Rana also realised, leftist movements in India, of all shades and colours, failed to accommodate this typical Indian characteristic in their respective political programme. Important fall out of this ignorance, as Rana has observed from his field experience, is mutual distancing between left and Dalit movements. In case of left parties in Bengal, ignorance went to the extent of total denial of the existence of any caste related problems in Bengali society.

Santosh Rana is no more. What he leaves for the future of the left movement in this country is this treasure of experiences enriched with thoughtful insights. He ends his account with a clarion call for unity of left parties. He, however, avoided the question like—are the existing left parties not worn off enough? Does such unity need to be based on new thoughts and new organisations?

*Rjnitir Ek Jibon
By Santosh Rana
Ananda, 2018, Kolkata

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Vol. 52, No. 9, Sep 1 - 7, 2019