Autumn Number 2019

Santosh Rana—A Long Journey

An Organic Revolutionary Intellectual

Partha Chatterjee

There have been several moments in the history of modern Bengal when young men and women left their schools and colleges and the promise of successful professional careers to take up the arduous and often dangerous life of revolutionary politics. The first such moment was at the beginning of the twentieth century when secret groups of armed revolutionaries were formed in Bengal to assassinate British officials in order to create terror among the colonial rulers. Many young men and women, several of them with university degrees, were hanged or sent away to the dreaded Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands; others spent the best years of their youth in prison. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, there was another exodus of college-educated youth from urban middle-class homes to a life of struggle among peasants in the villages. Some of these young men and women became committed Gandhians, others joined the Communist Party. After independence, the parties of the Left continued to recruit their cadres from colleges and universities. The outbreak of the Naxalbari movement in 1967 and the rise of a new communist formation dedicated to armed peasant struggle saw a fresh wave of student radicals who left the city to join the revolution in the countryside. Santosh Rana was among them. But he was a revolutionary with a difference.

Rana, who passed away in Kolkata on 29 June 2019, was born in 1943 in a remote village of West Medinipur bordering Odisha. Located in the thana (Police Station) of Gopiballabhpur, the area was for a long time a zamindari of the neighbouring princely state of Mayurbhanj. Rana recalls in his memoirs Rajnitir ek jiban (2017) that the language of the pathshalas in the region used to be Odiya because that was what most people spoke. Even in his childhood, Rana found that older people still spoke Odiya and a few were able to read Odiya books. The jatra performances that were held in the village were in Odiya. But for some mysterious administrative reason, when the province of Orissa was formed in 1912, Gopiballabhpur was included in Bengal rather than Orissa. Gradually, the schools switched to Bengali. As a result, says Rana, an entire generation in the village became illiterate because it could not adapt to the unfamiliar language.

Rana came from a farming family of modest means. His grandfather could read Odiya but his father was illiterate. The description Rana gives of his village in his childhood shows how little of the basic amenities of modern life were available in this remote region even twenty years after independence. The nearest hospital was in Baripada in Odisha; the district hospital in Medinipur was too far away and Jhargram did not yet have a hospital. The village was not connected by bus and only a few people owned bicycles. Needless to say, there was no electricity. When, after spending a few years in the village primary school, Santosh Rana went to attend high school in Nayabasan, he had to walk three kilometres each way every day. There were students in his class who walked six or seven kilometres each way, because that was the only high school in all of Gopiballabhpur thana. Rana sat for the School Final examination in 1958. The examination centre was a high school in Jhargram. To reach it, one had to travel on foot, cross the Subarnarekha river by boat and then take a bus—a journey of six hours. The students of Nayabasan High School had to be lodged in a hostel in Jhargram for the entire duration of the examination. What is even more remarkable is that when Santosh Rana passed the School Final (in the second division), he was the first student in the history of his village to successfully complete high school.

Rana joined the Intermediate (Science) class at Jhargram Raj College. It was, he says, "like jumping from a well into the ocean". All his teachers in high school were from farming families in neighbouring villages and shared the same cultural world with their students. The college in Jhargram was a government college, many of whose teachers had stellar degrees from Calcutta University and belonged to a sophisticated urban culture. The intelligent and sensitive student from Nayabasan hungrily absorbed all the knowledge he could acquire from his teachers of mathematics, physics, chemistry and Bengali. He devoured all the books he could lay his hands on in the college library. At the same time, he discovered the realities of the deep urban-rural divide in Bengal's culture: students from an urban background, including the handful of women students, refused to make friends with those who came from the villages. The latter formed a social group of their own.

By then, Santosh Rana had lost his father. His mother did not have the means to support her son's expenses. Rana had to adopt the familiar method followed by generations of struggling students in Bengal—offering private coaching to younger students to meet their living expenses away from home. His intelligence and hard work soon attracted the attention of several of his teachers in college who generously helped and encouraged the eager student from a remote village. Everyone, including Rana himself, was utterly surprised when the I.Sc. results were declared. Santosh Rana was among the top twenty students on the merit list of the university.

He enrolled as an honours student of physics at Presidency College. Supported by a scholarship and free residence in a government hostel for rural students in Kolkata, the young man from Gopiballabhpur began to enjoy, for the first time in his life, some ease and comfort. He used the opportunity to immerse himself in the world of science, avidly listening to the lectures of some of the best physics teachers in the country and making friends with a glittering array of brilliant students. He also opened himself to the cultural attractions of the city—visiting the tourist sites, going to the cinema and watching football matches in the Maidan. His future life seemed to have been perfectly mapped out when he graduated from Presidency College, joined the University Science College to do an M.Tech. in Optics and, in 1967, obtained that degree with the highest marks in his class. He was immediately recruited by a distinguished scientist in the department as a senior research fellow to work for a PhD in the emerging field of holography. Nothing seemed to stand in the way of Santosh Rana spending the rest of his life as a research scientist.

It was not to be. Until then, he had taken only a casual interest in politics. It was, of course, a tumultuous time, and students in West Bengal were deeply involved in the food movement of 1965-66 and the protests against the Vietnam war. Rana was aware of these issues, sometimes participated in discussions with his politically active friends, and even joined one or two demonstrations. But none of these impulses was strong enough to persuade him to stray from his chosen task of devoting all his energies to the pursuit of science.

What changed everything was the outbreak of the peasant revolt in Naxalbari and its impact on leftist students in Kolkata. Slogans began to be raised at the University Science College, as in other colleges, in support of Naxalbari. Following the suppression of the peasant uprising by the police forces deployed by the United Front government, conflicts emerged between pro-Naxalbari students and the CPI(M). Santosh Rana was drawn towards the former group and, being the good student that he was, began to read some of the writings of Lenin and Mao that his friends gave him. But he was a novice in political matters and did not understand most of what he read. The exception was Mao's famous report on the peasant struggle in Hunan. Rana saw in Mao's account a striking parallel with the exploitative power relations between landlord-jotdar-moneylenders and peasants in his own village. It not only opened his eyes to a reality he had always experienced but never thought about, but also gave him his first lesson in the methods of social analysis.

During the autumn holidays of 1967, Santosh Rana invited a few of his college friends to accompany him to his village. They were all inspired by the message of Naxalbari and eager to spread that message among peasants in other parts of Bengal. Rana used his local contacts to take his friends to the surrounding villages and organized a few meetings. He found that people were eager to listen to their stories of the struggle in Naxalbari. But he was puzzled by the fact that those belonging to the Mal caste (Mallakshatriya), who often owned some land but sharply distinguished themselves from the middle-caste Sadgop who, they believed, had swindled them of their lands, were much more militant than the landless Bagdi, who were bound by close but thoroughly exploitative relations with Sadgop landowners. This did not fall into the pattern described in Mao's report. The first doubts were sown in Rana's mind about the degree to which the formulas of class analysis developed in other countries could be applied to the Indian agrarian situation.

Even though he went back to his laboratory at the end of the vacation, Rana found it difficult to erase from his mind his novel experience of talking politics with the rural people he had grown up with. He had discovered a new language from his readings in Marxism-Leninism, a new way of looking at society. He felt a strong urge to return to the village. In the meantime, things were developing rapidly within his circle of college friends. A group called the Presidency Consolidation had been formed with Asim Chatterjee as its leader. In November 1967, a mass meeting was held at the Shahid Minar in Kolkata by the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries consisting of several of the future leaders of the CPI(M-L). Rana attended the meeting.

His mind was made up. He resigned his fellowship at the Science College and returned to Nayabasan to take up a job as the physics teacher at his old high school. A few months later, some members of the Presidency Consolidation came to Gopiballabhpur to join up with Rana. Thus, began the life of a revolutionary.

What followed is the well-known story of the rise and fall of the CPI(M-L). Rana's life in the next few years fell into a pattern that was common for many others who joined the movement—moving from village to village, holding meetings, organising peasants against landlords and moneylenders, carrying out "actions" to annihilate class enemies, arrest, imprisonment. Rana was identified as a leading "conspirator" in waging war against the state and spent more than six years in jail. But his social background made him somewhat different from the other major Naxalite leaders of his generation.

There were a few broad divisions among the radical students who joined the communist movement in West Bengal in the 1960s. One group came from urban families that were originally from East Bengal but were settled in comfortable middle-class occupations in Kolkata. Another section lived in refugee colonies in the suburbs of the city where maintaining a middle-class lifestyle was a hard struggle. But both of these groups of mostly upper-caste and middle-class students comprised the first generation in Bengal's history that was completely sundered from the organic experience of village life. Unlike earlier generations of city dwellers in Kolkata, they did not have a village home to visit on holidays or festivals. This would have a significant effect on their radicalised understanding of society and politics. The other division consisted of students from the district towns and villages of West Bengal who joined colleges and universities in the city. They did have a close knowledge of rural society. But they were mostly from upper-caste landed families and consequently had been taught to maintain a social distance from the lower castes. Even when they became radicalized by their exposure to leftist politics, they were rarely able to overcome their culturally imposed misunderstanding and ignorance of the life of labouring peasants.

Santosh Rana's upbringing in a middle-peasant Teli family in a remote village of Gopiballabhpur had given him a very different life experience. For him, the deep identities of caste and sect were part of his common sense. Further, the region where he grew up also had a significant Santal population that was, however, part of the local agrarian economy. Rana had grown up in the confluence of at least three regional cultures—that of Odisha with its distinct caste structure, the Bengali peasant culture of Western Medinipur and the Santal culture of Jangalmahal. This was the inherited resource that remained with him as he opened himself to the metropolitan world of modern science and sophisticated culture. When he went back to the village after having acquired a new political vision, he did not see the rural world with the same romantic eyes as his comrades from the city.

As they organised a movement in Gopiballabhpur, Santosh Rana was quick to see how its success or failure depended on local relations between caste groups. People rarely joined the movement as individuals; rather, entire caste groups in a particular village would join or stay away. There were caste leaders who had influence. Some groups were divided internally into landowning and landless families, and yet acted as a single collective body. Others were entirely landless but were reluctant to join in militant actions against their oppressors. Large castes were often divided into factions. Rana immediately saw what his urban comrades did not see—that their revolutionary slogans of militant class struggle were abstract and bookish. They had to be tested, adapted, even transformed to suit the prevailing social and cultural conditions before they could become the tools of effective political action.

In particular, he was struck by the way in which, soon after their initial series of meetings, a group of Mal women took the lead in reaping the crop of a piece of land which they claimed was once the common property of the entire village but had been usurped by the Sadgop landlord. Faced with the combined resistance of the entire Mal village, the landlord backed off. This led to an almost spontaneous spread in instances of forcible crop cutting by peasants in surrounding villages. When landlords protested, they were surrounded and harangued by large crowds, but there was no physical violence. The landlords generally found it prudent to compromise. Rana saw a phenomenal rise in the enthusiasm for collective action. But then came the party line of assassination of class enemies. It led to a disaster. Peasants who were eager to join the agrarian struggle became hesitant and fearful. When the police repression began, they fled.

While in prison, Santosh Rana became convinced that militant armed action had to be accompanied by democratic struggles within the parliamentary system. Not to do so was to deprive the people of an important instrument of struggle. When the emergency was lifted and the Indira regime defeated in the 1977 elections, thousands of political prisoners were still imprisoned in West Bengal's jails. Lodged in Midnapore jail, Rana decided to fight the Assembly elections from Gopiballabhpur on behalf of the CPI(M-L) led by S. N. Sinha. His principal slogan was the unconditional release of all political prisoners. His supporters had no funds to print posters and the candidate himself was in prison. To everyone's surprise, Santosh Rana defeated the CPI(M) candidate to win a seat in the West Bengal Assembly.

As the solitary member of his party in an assembly dominated by the CPI(M), there was little he could do by way of legislative action. He did, however, once deliver an entire speech in Santali and insisted that arrangements be made to record it in the proceedings. His effort did result in the recruitment of a Santali translator. Again, participating in a debate on an amendment to the law on cow protection, Rana argued that the entire provision should be scrapped and beef-eating encouraged so that there would be an economic incentive to the rearing of cattle that could not be used in farming. One wonders what effect such a speech would have had today.

Santosh Rana's subsequent political career does not have any major achievements. He always retained an active involvement in a dwindling party organisation, participated in public campaigns and joined various fraternal movements. But in the last three decades of his life, he launched a parallel and highly significant career as a revolutionary intellectual.

Among many writers, including major academics, who belong to the Left in Bengal, Santosh Rana was a major figure who relentlessly argued for a renewed discussion of the caste and tribal questions in West Bengal. The caste question did figure prominently in Bengal before independence, alongside the Hindu-Muslim question. But the partition of the province saw the erasure of caste from the domain of organised politics in West Bengal. This was accompanied by an almost complete dominance by the upper castes of almost every institution of public and political life. Rana began to write at length about castes and tribes in the different districts of West Bengal. He was also among the few prominent leftist leaders in West Bengal to openly align with the Dalit movement and the Jharkhand movement. The intrinsic difference between his view of the rural world and those of urban leftist intellectuals was crucial.

Santosh Rana's claim that revolutionary politics must combine militant class struggles with parliamentary forms of democratic mobilisation is probably shared by many today. What is not clear is how the parliamentary Left can avoid being completely swallowed by the cumulative demands of competitive populism and the professiona-lisation of politics as a rent-seeking occupation. A new intellectual insight is required to find directions for the revival of revolutionary politics. Such an intellectual vision can come from those who, like Santosh Rana, have inherited the common sense of ordinary people in towns and villages but, through their intelligence and effort, have transcended the narrow limits of their inherited culture. In this respect, Santosh Rana's life will remain exemplary for radical political activists.

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019