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On Naxalbari movement’s 50th anniversary, Presidency college’s former student recalls those tumultuous days…

‘New Maoist Revolts Didn’t Identify Enemy, Have Plan For Land Capture’

‘New Maoist Revolts Didn’t Identify Enemy, Have Plan For Land Capture’
PHOTOGRAPH BY SANDIPAN CHATTERJEE

Santosh Rana was a 23-year-old student at Calcutta’s Presidency College in 1967 when the Naxalbari rebellion erupted. Having immediately plunged into the movement, he later went on to question a few of its methodologies and tactics. As the movement turns 50 in May this year, the 74-year-old, who is a cancer-survivor, reminisces in an interview with Dola Mitra.

You were part of the first batch of Naxalbari revolutionaries. Tell us about those early days.

The year was 1967. I was studying at Presidency College, doing my M.Tech. News had been trickling in that an armed reb­ellion was taking place in a village called Naxalbari in north Bengal’s Darjeeling district. This uprising, by the local peasants, was being led by district leaders of the Communist Party of India, namely Charu Majumdar and his comrades Kanu Sanyal, Mujib-ur-Rehman (not to be mistaken with Bangladesh’s founding father), Khokon Majumdar etc. I was deeply motivated. I immediately decided to take the movement to Gopiballavpur in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district, which is where I came from.

What about the Naxalbari movement attracted you?

“India is a parliamentary democracy; our experience showed one cannot bring about change by merely fighting it. How many will you kill?”
I identified with the need for a peasant rebellion. In my village in Gopiballavpur, I had long been disturbed by the kind of feudal exploitation in the region. There was a powerful landlord called Mahanta Goswami. The land was ‘kulat’ or fertile, with the Subarnarekha river flowing through it. Goswami controlled 5,000 acres of this land, which was tilled by sharecroppers and other poor, landless farmers. They were completely at the mercy of this man. They had to give up almost all the produce—paddy, different types of vegetables, potatoes, etc—to him or to his middlemen. The villagers lived lives of near-starvation. After back-breaking work, they barely got a decent meal. For food they mostly depended on forest produce like fruits from the jungles and different types of forest yams. They got to eat rice only two to three months a year, that too maybe only one meal a day. This was during the rainy seasons, when they took ‘loans’ of paddy from the landlord, partly for consumption, but mostly for sowing. After they harvested the crop in autumn, the landlord would go to the villagers’ homes in his convoy of bullock carts. Actually he rode on buffalo carts because he was a ‘cow lover’, as he considered himself a Brahmin. The villagers had to pay back with huge interest. For one ‘mon’ (a unit of measurement) of paddy they borrowed for consumption, they had to return one-and-a-half ‘mons’. The rate of interest for seed paddy (paddy which they sowed) was double, that is, two ‘mons’ for each ‘mon’.

Did you meet Charu Majumdar and the others in Naxalbari before you took the revolution to West Midnapore?

No. Initially we regularly read and heard about them. Theirs was more than an ideology. They were taking powerful, direct and effective action against years of social, political and economic oppression. They offered the solution. They were following the tested methods of China’s Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China (CPC). In fact the CPC’s mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, had published an article, ‘Spring Thunder Over India’, in its July 5 issue in the same year of Naxalbari. The rebellion had stirred up infectious dissent not just across the country, but was being discussed internationally. It was much later that I met the Naxalbari leaders.

How did you reproduce the Naxalbari revolution in your village, Gopiballavpur?

I left Calcutta after dropping out of my Phd programme (thereby foregoing the Rs 400 stipend I was getting—quite a lot in those days). I went back to my region and started going from house to house, village to village, telling poor peasants of the need for such an uprising. Gopiballavpur was mostly populated by tribals—Santhals, Mundas, Mals, Bagdis. There were also four to five middle castes who were sharecroppers, like Teli, Sadgop, Raju, Khandoit. The middle-level ‘mah­ajons’ or landlords belonged mostly to the Utkala Brahmin caste. Mahanta Goswami was one. We started teaching villagers the methods of revolt against the landlords with certain specific strategies. First, we told them not to pay loans back. This would be achieved by burning loan books, which registered how much they had to pay back, so that there would be no records. The next step was to forcibly take over the lands and, after that,  to distribute it equally amongst themselves. Killing the landlords, in keeping with the ideology of annihilation of the class enemy, was part of the strategy.

 

Did you find them receptive to such a violent uprising?

Most had so much bottled up anger that they immediately took to the idea. We thought that maybe landed tribals would have a problem with it. But we found them, like the land-owning Santhals, very enthusiastic. Ide­­­­ntity acquired prominence and they would rather revolt against upper castes than count themselves as belonging to the same economic ‘class’. On the other hand, many landless sha­recroppers who belonged to the middle castes were often rel­uctant. So it occurred to us that, though the Naxal movement was a ‘class’ revolution, here it was more about caste.

“In Midnapore, middle caste farmers were reluctant to revolt against upper caste oppressors. Here, it was more about caste, not class.”
After the Naxal movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s was crushed by the state, it reemerged in West Bengal, in this very area, in the mid-to late 2000s, until its leader Koteshwar Rao was killed in 2012. Was this a continuation of the old Naxalism or did it undergo vast changes, as has been claimed?

While I have great respect for this rebellion, since it was against the class enemy, the recent movement lacked two rudimentary, core principles necessary for every revolution. One, it did not properly identify the ‘enemy’ and ended up killing the very people whom Naxalism represented. The CPI(Maoist) people, who operated in West Midnapore in the 1990s and 2000s, targeted the CPI(M) because they represe­nted the ruler class, but eventually killed 250 poor peasants who were the party’s supporters. This is unacceptable. I have never met Kishenji, but he erred here. The second cardinal mistake was to not have a plan for land capture and re-distribution amongst peasants. Any revolution that does not have land as its central aim is purposeless and pointless.

The movement, it is said, has degenerated into open hoodlumism.

When a movement lacks these two principles and ends up killing its own people, deviating from its purpose of dissemination of land and therefore power, it is bound to degenerate. Terrorism and criminality has entered into it.

During the Naxal movement you went underground, before being arrested (twice). But then you decided to fight elections, representing the CPI (ML) party, becoming an MLA in 1977. What caused you to change your mind and participate in the democratic process?

Self-analysis at different times has caused us to change course. Every revolution must do that. Those which rigidly hold on to untested principles even if they are unsuccessful fail. The ground reality of China, which successfully carried out peasant rebellions in the remotest areas, is different from India’s. India operates under a parliamentary democratic system and our experience showed that one cannot successfully bring about change merely by fighting it. How many people are you going to kill? You have to strike a balance. You have to use the system in order to subvert the oppression that exists in it.http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/new-maoist-revolts-didnt-identify-enemy-have-plan-for-land-capture/298752

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Comment (1)

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    Informative interview about the experiences of life. His support for the peasants is commendable

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