‘Naxalbari 50’: The Failed Experiment

The ‘Spark’ did not turn into a Prairie Fire

Timir Basu

It was probably the middle of 1968, the period of the United Front Government in West Bengal. Clashes among partners of the United Front were endemic in the countryside. The Naxalite movement was in the middle of the sky. We, who had bade adieu to university education and came to the villages under the inspiration of the movement of Naxalbari, had to face political hostility at various levels. Slogans such as 'go to the villages', 'get integrated with peasants' 'complete the agrarian revolution', 'build up revolutionary peasant committees', attracted many of the younger generation of that period. We also had thought that a comprehensive change was imminent. But as we came to the village we understood that practice on the basis of this theory was not so easy. There is no doubt that there was much thrill in the urban discussions on revolution in the countryside, building up organisations was not that easy because the rural social structure was very much complex.

The Haroa-Sandeshkhali-Basirhat region had once been witness to a mighty Tebhaga peasant movement, and as a result there was a general influence of the Communist movement in this region. We chose this area as the place for the propagation of Naxalbari-based politics. The movement was then divided, not all the Naxalites having joined the CPI(M-L). Many groups did not accept the bureaucratic way in which the party was formed. They maintained their independent existence, but was propagating the politics of Naxalbari and described themselves as Naxalites. The 'group' identity nowhere dominated, and such identities had little importance to the rural people. It is true that the Naxalites were conducting hairsplitting ideological debates among themselves, but the influence of such debates was not prominent in general as far as the propagation of Naxalbari politics was concerned. This influence was limited to cadres only.

The CPI(M), the CPI and other parties used to hold public rallies in the open. But no Naxalite group would do so. All of them used to hold fairly secret or semi-secret meetings. We used to hold such meetings at night. The CPI(M) was the principal target of our attack and we used to propagate how this party had deviated from the path of revolution and was acting against the interests of the people. There was frightening poverty in the countryside in those days. The wages of farm labourers were very low, employment was not to be obtained for the whole of the year. Our area had no big landowner, but had moneylenders. Queerly enough, Chettiars from Tamil Nadu used to lend money at high interest in different villages, and the borrowers were day-labourers or small farmers or petty grocers. These Chettiars used to come on every market day (the day when the weekly or bi-weekly rural market, known as hat, was held) in order to realise interest. For one thing these Chettiars were earlier driven from Burma for their unserious activities that auguated reverse crisis for the Burmese economy. It is true that there was no big landowner, but there were owners of large rural fisheries, known as bheris. They undertook cultivation of fish by submerging large areas of paddy-land in water. They were all big fish, and owing to their class positions, they were all supporters of the Congress.

The CPI(M) and other parties belonging to the Left panorama were trying to seize these bheris and even succeeded in seizing many. Smaller owners, however, saved themselves by paying tributes to the party concerned. At the Haroa market, the CPI(M) controlled Krishak Sabha [peasant association] then often organised armed processions towards the evening. Such processions were illegal, but organising them was designed to create fear among political opponents.

We obtained a few activists and sympathisers including Jayanta, son of the headmaster of Haroa high school. These fellows had once been involved with the CPI(M) or the CPI.

One night, however, some posters were pasted in the market area with slogans like 'Long live Naxalbari', 'Long live the agrarian revolution'. All the political parties and police were astir, although we then had no real organisational strength. Jayanta however didn’t get himself involved in active politics for long; he gave it up and began to write poems. But the realm of poetry could not keep him for long. Later he committed suicide out of one sort of metal fatigue and frustration. Our propaganda led to an erosion of the popular support of the CPI(M). Almost all our supporters had once been with the CPI(M). One such supporter was Din Ali, owner of a small grocery, who lived at a village named Malatipur. Some of his kinsmen, diehard CPI(M) supporters, did not at all like this association of his with us, but could not oppose us directly. One day, we were informed that the CPI had occupied the bheri of Gopal Guha at Gopalpur. It was the largest bheri in Haroa region, although bheris like Gobere Lat adjacent to the Haroa market or the bheri of the Boses were not much less in terms of area. We were trying to spread the politics of Naxalbari, i.e. our organisation by taking advantage of the political instability. We thought of going to the occupied bheri areas, but getting entry there was very difficult owing to lack of contacts. There was also the fear of being stigmatized as 'Naxalites'. Din Ali told us that going there was no problem, because the chief lethel ('lethels' meant persons who professionally wielded sticks at the behest of their employers) was in charge of maintenance of the bheri was a near relation of his. We entered the area under the pretext of meeting him. Nobody suspected it as a Naxalite move although both the police and the CPI(M) were watching the movements of Naxalites.

The chief lethel, another Ali, was extremely loyal to the Guhas, and was very much disinclined to accept the grabbing activity of the party. Yet they were then not in a position to take some counter-measures. We heard that the Guhas had filed a case in the High Court, and their supporters were waiting for the court verdict. But seeing the chief, it seemed to me that he was really courageous enough to be a chief, fully able to face at least a score of persons single-handedly. At that time there was many professional stick-wielders in this area, usually provided with employment by bheri-owners. A village named Sankarpur indeed came to be known as that of lethels. Dacoits too were not few in number in this region. In passing, it may be said that they held Naxalites in awe, and tried to keep good relations with us. They supposed that there were sophisticated firearms in our possession, and good relations with us might help them obtain such weapons. On many occasions, we came across them while crossing some fields during night, and after chats for a few minutes we got separated and took our own ways. But in old age, the lives of many of them were very much pitiable. One day, I saw an old dacoit named Bhonu running at the top of his speed. As I asked where he was going, he informed that he was to stand in the queue of the ration shop ahead of others. One day this Bhanu told me that he had never used even a knife in his life. The truth was that his very name delivered the goods.

The bheri owner of the Gopalpur area became so isolated from the common masses that chief lethel and his gangs had little to do. It was found that almost all of the new generation even the near relations of the chief were for the party that occupied the bheris.

The conditions of fishermen working at the bheris on daily wages did not improve significantly. There were only wage increases of eight anas (half of a rupee) per day. But the funds of the party in occupation inflated rapidly, and naturally, the manners and appearances of leaders became chic. In this politics of seizure and counter-seizures, all partners of the Front used dacoits to a greater or lesser extent. Clashes between different parties were taking place now and then over seizure of vested land. Kamardanga was a little known village in the south of Haroa, and there a quack doctor was a Naxalite supporter known to Jayanta. One day we, along with the latter, went to meet him with the purpose of holding a group meeting with his help. Incidentally, on the very day we reached there, the CPI and the CPI(M) were hurling bombs at each other over the seizue of a piece of vested land, which was a low marshland with a CPI-influenced village on one side and a CPI(M)-influenced local market on another. We were standing in the market area. All the shops were closed and the shopkeepers were seeing this feud. A few of them informed us that the person leading the CPI-gang, a person in shorts and black alkhalla, holding a pipe-gun, was a famous dacoit, named Yasin, of the area. But they could not withstand the counter-attack of the CPI(M), and were forced to retreat in the face of massive bomb-throwing. But the frenzied CPI(M) mob set fire to many houses and piles of straw of the village that was the CPI den. In such cases of clash, the victims were generally landless farm labourers.

Many shopkeepers were putting different questions to us. As they learnt that we had come to see the doctor, they easily understood who we were and what our purpose was. One said with a smile, "You see, we are training them. You will not face much of a problem". On our return journey, we saw CPI(M) flags flying over what was once the office-house of the zamindars, a red two-storied building. The zamindari of the party was running well enough over a large area. It is a fact that the phenomenon of seizure and counter-seizure generated a craze among the rural poor, and the clashes among the Front partners created a situation in which landowners and vested interests had scarcely any problem.

On the way to Gopalpur from the Haora market area, there was the Gobare Lat, the large water reservoir of the Boses. The son of its manager was an acquaintance of Jayanta. That fellow was initially a CPI supporter, and then partially turned towards us. Our posters were written in his house. The CPI(M) occupied the reservoir or bheri, as one might call it. In the morning when this bheri was seized, we came to Haroa for some other reason. The CPI(M)-controlled Krishak Sabha arrived with a large armed procession with almost everybody in possession of some weapon, e.g. stick, spear, bow and arrow, tangi and country-made bomb. The armed frenzied mob ransacked the office, brought the account books and other papers from the office and burnt them. The spectacle repeatedly reminded me of Mao's 'Hunan' report. Revolution is the festival of the masses, but this festival conducted by the CPI(M) did not at all initiate a revolution. The ownership temporarily passed on to the hands of the party. Now the party leaders became the real owners and the 'revolution' ended with the eight anna wage increase. The party however gave the assurance that all those whose lands had been lost because of the construction of the water reservoir would now get back their lands.

Such seizures and counter-seizures did not bring about any radical change, but a reckless sense of rights was taking shape among the common masses. We were holding group meetings and trying to make them understand why this politics of seizure was not to emancipate them. But this uninhibited craze for seizure was so deep and ubiquitous that there was scarcely anybody to listen to our Maoist theory on this subject.

The number of Muslim peasnts was not few in this region. On most occasions, those who gave us shelter at night were Muslim peasants or bidi workers. We nowhere witnessed the least trace of communalism. Actually, wherever there has been any mass movement, the poison of communalism has been destroyed and a healthy social atmosphere generated, brushing aside the ambience of mutual suspicion. The small and middle peasant families that sheltered us had all been CPI(M) supporters earlier. We were failing to translate their support into the language of active protest, the reason being that we ourselves had no comprehensive idea as to how this 'underground' propaganda would be transformed into the politics of seizure of power. The highest leadership too maintained a confusion regarding the issue. We were proceeding with a vague idea that our task was to form secret peasant committees and that this committee would be the centre of village power in future.

At first, there was little police alacrity in our area. But since we were opposing the line of 'annihilation', adherents of the 'annihilation' line executed such an action in order to oust us, leading to an intensification of police activities. En passant, it may be said that the police collected their information and kept watch on the movements of the Naxalites through those CPI activists who had become aloof from active politics or have become idle. But on many occasions, they gave us prior information about police activities.

At one stage, it appeared to us that in the way we were carrying our political propaganda, it was not possible to build up any larger movement. Actually what was needed was another 'Naxalbari' type spark. But nowhere in India there was that possibility. We were walking backwards everywhere.

In the meantime, I came to Kolkata to hold a meeting. The meeting could not be held, nor could I return to the village. I was arrested from the Beniapukur Masjid. There was a CPI(M) commune nearby, and they used to keep watch on the happenings. The elder son of the Imam, Juber Bhai, a bidi worker, was our sympathiser, and he arranged it for us to hold a meeting in a room adjacent to the mosque. At first a group of CPI(M) militants encircled us. Incidentally, Juber was not at that moment nearby, having gone to bring bread for us. Since it was a mosque, the CPI(M) did not directly attack us, and instead informed the Beniapukur police station by phone. The police came and arrested us. It was in early 1970. Thereafter I was in the Alipore Special Jail for about a year. By then the ebb tide had already set in.

The inflow of Naxalites into jails was not yet widespread, although arrests were taking place regularly. Then almost everyday, Naxalite prisoners were coming to the 'amdani' ward of the jail in greater or lesser number. At that time, Nirmal Brammachari, one of our co-participants in the student movement, was also in prison. He had been arrested while undertaking the task of 'agrarian revolution' in an adivasi area.

The prison life brought some queer experiences. The followers of 'the line of annihilation' paraded their extremism even in jail. We, who were opposed to this line, were called by them subtle revisionists scared of revolution. The situation not infrequently reached such a bitterness that it seemed that they could annihilate class enemies like us in prison itself, if possible, and thus parade their revolutionary zeal. Their various rash activities created enmities of various sorts between them and ordinary prisoners resulting occasionally in situations of mutual fights. Once prisoners were fired upon in this Alipore Speecial Jail, killing nine Naxalite prisoners. We, however, were then outside. But the conditions outside were tremendously disappointing. In one sense, the politics revolving around Naxalbari and the call for revolution on the basis of this politics was by then an extreme failure. Blind loyalty to the Chinese was a most important reason for the disaster in the revolution. Nobody in those days or even at present had the candour to admit it. The efforts that are now afoot for reconstruction are plagued by that egotism, apathy to self-criticism, intolerance to adverse criticism. These are aborting the natural development of the movement.

[Translated from original Bengali published in Janaswarth Barta, Special Sarad Sankha, 2017, by Anirban Biswas]

Autumn Number
Vol. 50, No.12-15, Sep 24 - Oct 21, 2017