Naxalbari at 50

Busts of “revolutionary leaders” line up a track leading to a school in Naxalbari’s Bengaijyot hamlet.   | Photo Credit: Suvojit Bagchi

The movement lost steam very soon after it began, but it helped bring poor peasants and farm labourers to the forefront of the nation’s imagination

It’s a ramshackle bus, lit inside by a naked bulb hanging from the roof. It leaves Warangal’s Ghanpur station market, where a series of shops sell fat chickens. It then takes a right turn and heads east to cross the Godavari River, and keeps going till it enters Chhattisgarh near Bhadrachalam.

Inside, about a dozen boys—in their late teens and early 20s—doze peacefully on each other’s shoulders. It’s the early 1990s and one of the boys is Shambala Ravinder.

“I used to put up People’s War (PW) posters on walls, run errands for senior leaders,” Ravinder tells me. Soon, he ran into cops and was “beaten to a pulp”. Afraid of dying and also tired of the systematic “exploitation” by landlords, he boarded the bus that night and headed to Chhattisgarh to join the CPI-ML-PW or Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist People’s War or People’s War as it’s commonly called.

The decade of the 80s had been worse. “It was like a wave,” he recalls, “one or more members of nearly every family joined People’s War.” Ravinder belonged to a lower-middle class family from the Mudrasi community, engaged in fishing and farming in Warangal.

I first met Ravinder in 2010, in the hills of Abujhmarh in Bastar’s forests. It was the peak of monsoon. From a distance, Ravinder looked like a young Clive Lloyd. By then, the various Naxalite groupings across Bihar, Telangana and Chhattisgarh had merged to become the subsequently outlawed CPI-Maoist. This was their base in south Chhattisgarh, with two regional commands—south and north. Ravinder was head of Northern Command.

Inspired by a name

Ravinder had told me then that his inspiration for revolt had sprung from a political movement that began in 1967 in a sleepy town of north Bengal nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. The movement and the place was Naxalbari.

“When I boarded the bus that night, I knew nothing about Naxalbari. But in Bastar, the party routinely referred to the peasants’ uprising of 1967.” Whenever the Maoists entered a new village, one of the first things they discussed was the Naxalbari uprising, he said. “I often wanted to understand the magic of Naxalbari.”

Early this month, I found the answer in Buraganj village in Naxalbari, and it came from another erstwhile leader. Khudan Mullick is 76, and was once a second-rung, gun-toting leader of the Naxalbari uprising. Ethnically Rajbonsghi, and politically, a communist, Mullick was one of the leaders who travelled in 1967 to Peking, now Beijing, to meet Mao Tse-tung. “That was the magic,” Mullick laughs, “when a poor peasant like me, fighting landlords with bows and arrows, crosses borders to meet Mao.” He and three comrades were given basic arms training in China.

The Naxalbari uprising produced many such moments for peasants from the day it was launched 50 years ago on May 25, when police opened fire in a tiny hamlet of the block, killing nine women and two children.

The first few battles

The incident and the uprising that followed, however, were not isolated but the product of a series of small and big peasants’ movements that had simmered since Independence.

In late 2016, I was in Warangal, in Kadavendi village. A short queue had gathered in front of a ‘belt shop’. This is nothing but a deep freezer under an asbestos awning abutting a single-storied, two-room house, that sells cheap whisky and ultra-strong beer. There are about two dozen belt shops in Kadavendi that supply the daily dose of excitement, but the real excitement of the village goes back in history.

It was in Kadavendi that farmer Doddi Komaraiah was killed on July 4, 1946, after being “hit in the stomach by a bullet” fired from the house of one Deshmukh, writes P. Sundarayya, founding member of CPI-Marxist. Komaraiah’s death, and eventually of many others, triggered the Telengana Armed Struggle of 1946, which in turn inspired the Naxalbari movement 20 years later.

“It inspired us, but in Bengal, the idea of pushing landowners to share their crop equitably really came from the Tebhaga Movement of the 40s,” Mullick tells me. This movement, where the landowners’ share of produce was reduced from half to one-third, was what “seriously influenced” Naxalbari.

Nearly six feet tall, without an ounce of extra fat, Mullick is still a card-carrying Naxalite, but of a lesser-known, overground faction of the CPI-ML. He cycles to town every day to attend meetings. Handing over a cup of milky, sweet tea and a party leaflet, Mullick explains why a peasants’ uprising was inevitable in Naxalbari.

 

“In the early 60s, if a farmer took a loan of one mon (40 kg) of paddy, he had to return three mon. We (peasants) said, we won’t pay more than 10 kg as interest on one mon,” says Mullick. In the ensuing mass upsurge, peasants approached the Jotedars and told them to hand over their harvest, retaining the family’s share. Land was taken over by sticking in red flags printed with the hammer and sickle.

“It was electric, magical,” says Leela Singh. She is a former Naxalite commander and belonged to one of five squads in Kharibari block bordering Nepal. “We had about 11 single-shot rifles, which we had taken from the Jotedars.”

A short story

The magic didn’t last long. For a movement that has sent out such wide ripples, Naxalbari was surprisingly short-lived. In July 1967, the Communist Party of China published an editorial congratulating the uprising and virtually defining the road to revolution in India. “The Indian revolution must take the road of relying on peasants, establishing base areas in the countryside, persisting in protracted armed struggle and using the countryside to encircle and finally capture the cities. This is Mao Tse-tung’s road…” it said.

But by winter of that year, hundreds of peasants and leaders had been arrested and the movement had started to decline. The government mounted “a massive quelling operation (Operation Crossbow) and the area was dotted with police camps,” writes Khokon Majumdar, a key leader of the movement, in his memoirs.

The uprising had been confined to the Naxalbari area. So, in 1969, Charu Majumdar, chief ideologue and co-founder of the Naxalite movement, decided to not only broad-base the struggle but also formalise it into a political party. Thus was born the CPI-ML with Majumdar at its helm to pursue the “democratic revolution” and call for an armed insurrection to “seize state power”. But in three years, Majumdar died in custody. With that, the Naxalite movement came formally to an end.

Museum of movements

Late last year, I visited Siliguri, north Bengal’s most populous city. A bungalow with a tin roof sits on the arterial Hill Cart Road. It had a sprawling room filled with memorabilia of off-mainstream political movements of Bengal. Majumdar lived and worked in this room before he went underground. The walls have sketches of a docile-looking Stalin lighting a pipe, a smiling Mao delivering a speech, a serious Lenin, and a Karl Marx. Below Stalin is a wooden easy chair with a wide arm rest, and a photograph of Majumdar is placed in it. Opposite is a black bust of the leader.

“It’s made of fibreglass,” said Anita Majumdar, his eldest daughter and a doctor. In the summer of 1972, when Majumdar died in police custody, she was studying in Kolkata. She is reluctant to talk about her father but she wrote a seven-page chapter in a monograph on him where she speaks of seeing his body in a Kolkata hospital and how she “somehow didn’t feel like crying”. “A sense of pride filled my heart; at long last my father too had laid down his life at the altar of revolution,” she writes.

But in those three brief years, the movement had spread across Bengal, reaching semi-urban and urban areas and rocking Calcutta in the early 70s. Thousands of women and men, mostly in their 20s, were killed in ruthless police crackdowns. Then, it all folded up.

The second phase

The road that connects Kolkata’s south to its far south is among the city’s busiest streets. It has two residential areas—Jadavpur and Santoshpur—where many Naxalite members used to live or hide. Two former leaders live here now, Santosh Rana and Tilak Dasgupta.

I visit them and in separate interviews, both agree that it was Naxalbari that inspired the Naxalite uprisings of the 1980s and ’90s in Bihar and Telengana.

After the collapse of Naxalbari, Rana lost interest in bullets and chose the ballot to defeat a big landowner in the 1977 Assembly election. Dasgupta worked as a journalist but remained an activist and joined the subsequently banned CPI-ML-Party Unity in Bihar. He later started his own Naxalite faction. Rana says the main mistake of the Indian lot was to try to implement the China model. “The condition in Mao’s China was different, there were sharp divisions and infighting among the landowning classes, the war lords, and no parliamentary democracy. In India, the land-owning classes were fairly unified and it is a parliamentary democracy.”

Instead, the biggest success of the Naxalbari movement might be located in that it brought agricultural labourers and peasants to the forefront of the nation’s imagination. The movement may not have achieved what it intended—a democratic revolution—but “a democratisation of society” was initiated, as Dasgupta says, and “some reforms from the state flowed in.”

Adds Rana, “The movement substantially reduced the strength of the upper castes in Bihar and Telengana, which is a key success.”

Now, middle-class worries

At the Warangal chicken market, from where the Bastar-bound bus turns right, another turn leads to Thambalapally-Ippaguda village.

Once there, I turn into the iron gate of a newly constructed house. Ravinder appears in the doorway. In 2010, he had hosted me inside Bastar forest, where hundreds of Maoist guerrillas awaited his orders. In 2014, he had surrendered arms and taken up cotton farming. And now, he is here.

His wife is Vetti Adme or Devi, also an armed guerrilla in her earlier avatar. The couple got a settlement package as part of Telengana government’s surrender policy and settled down in Thambalapally. They now have a child named Rakshita.

“She is our only hope, our saviour, Rakshita… although I am not sure she will look after us when we grow old,” laughs Ravinder, as we sit talking in the veranda.

From a Maoist in a Chhattisgarh forest to a caring husband and doting father, Ravinder has come a long way. His laying down of arms is just one indication that the movement, often described as the third phase of the Naxalbari-inspired insurrection movements, is slowing down in Bastar. At any rate, it is evident that Adme and Ravinder have lost interest.

“I am more concerned with admitting Rakshita in an English medium school,” the father says, as he gives his 13-month-old infant an oil massage. As I leave, he hugs me and asks me to write about him so that he may get a job as a private security guard. “I have training, I will do well,” he says.http://www.thehindu.com/society/naxalbari-at-50/article18514656.ece

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