The road from Naxalbari

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST

In Naxalbari, in May 1967. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

In Naxalbari, in May 1967. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The naxalite movement, which began as a violent peasant response to oppression by landlords, has undergone severe conflicts and innumerable splits over ideological and political positions before the regrouping attempt.

"A peal of spring thunder has crashed over the land of India."

- Editorial, People's Daily, July 5, 1967.

THE organ of the Communist Party of China (CPC) seemed to be consumed by a sense of euphoria as it used these words to describe the Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal in May 1967. It went on to add that the "revolutionary group of the Indian Communist Party has done the absolutely correct thing" by adopting the revolutionary line advanced by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, which involved "relying on the peasants, establishing base area in the countryside, persisting in protracted armed struggle and using the countryside to encircle and finally capture the cities".

The editorial concluded that "a single spark can start a prairie fire" and that "a great storm of revolutionary armed struggle will eventually sweep across the length and breadth of India". This optimism, was obviously motivated by similar hopes expressed by the leadership of the Naxalbari uprising - Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal. Charu Mazumdar, the principal ideologue of the "first authentic Maoist phenomenon" in India, held that "there was an excellent revolutionary situation in the country with all the classical symptoms" and that organisations such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), to which Mazumdar originally belonged, had "betrayed the cause of Indian revolution by choosing the path of parliamentarism and class collaboration".

The merits and relevance of this political line may still be debatable but its organisational advancement was marked by anything but cohesion. Right from its early stages, the movement was characterised by severe internal differences and conflicts over ideological issues, tactical positions and, above all, personal egotism of the leaders. Such was the intensity of these internal squabbles that the movement split repeatedly, particularly during the first two decades of its existence. There was a time when as many as two dozen naxalite outfits were operating in the country, all claiming to be the real inheritors of the legacy of Naxalbari, and even indulging in annihilation of members of other groups branding them "class enemies". To paraphrase the figurative expression that was used to describe the movement in its initial days, the "peal of spring thunder" had, in reality, turned out to be a babel of voices.

This streak was visible from the very first initiatives to give a concrete organisational shape to the Maoist political line. The movement, which began as a violent peasant resistance to landlords at Naxalbari village in May 1967 on the basis of the land-to-the-tiller slogan, had acquired a larger appeal in about two months on account of the open support it evinced from sections of the State units of the CPI(M) in West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. These units had a formal meeting in November 1967, though the uprising itself had been crushed by August.

This meeting led to the formation of the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR) in May 1968. One of the first decisions of the body was to adhere steadfastly to armed struggle and not participate in elections. But differences cropped up over how armed struggle should be advanced and this led to the exclusion of a section of activists from Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, led respectively by T. Nagi Reddy and Kanhai Chatterjee.

Kanhai Chatterjee argued that armed struggle and annihilation of the class enemy should be carried out only after building up mass agitations, while predominant sections of the AICCCR rejected this. The AICCCR went ahead with the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in May 1969 and Chatterjee followed suit in October with the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC). The CPI(M-L) held its first congress in 1970 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Charu Mazumdar was formally elected its general secretary.

Both the CPI(M-L) and the MCC continued with their respective forms of armed struggle for the next two years. In the process, Mazumdar acquired a kind of cult status among naxalites. The negative aspect of the development of this personality cult revealed itself shortly when Mazumdar was arrested in Calcutta on July16, 1972. His death, less than a fortnight later, in the lock-up virtually led to the collapse of central authority in the CPI(M-L).

The history of the movement after Mazumdar's death was marked by a number of splits brought about by personalised and narrow perceptions about the Maoist revolutionary line and attempts at course correction by some of the major groups. Even Kanu Sanyal, one of the founders of the movement, was not free from this trend. He gave up the path of "dedicated armed struggle" by 1977 and accepted parliamentary practice as one form of revolutionary activity.

One of the major initiatives at course correction was launched in 1974 by a group of CPI(M-L) activists who concentrated mainly in the then undivided State of Bihar. It included Jauhar (Subrata Dutt), Nagbhushan Patnaik and Vinod Mishra. This group renamed itself as CPI(M-L) Liberation in 1974, and in 1976, during the Emergency, it adopted a new line that called for the continuation of armed guerilla struggles along with efforts to form a broad anti-Congress democratic front, consisting even of non-communist parties. The group also suggested that pure military armed struggle should be limited and that there should be greater emphasis on mass peasant struggles to Indianise the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Thought.

During the next three years, this new line caused further splits with leaders, such as Kondapalli Seetharamaiah (Andhra Pradesh) and N. Prasad (Bihar) dissociating themselves from the activities of the party. Prasad formed the CPI(M-L) (Unity Organisation) and Seetharamaiah started the People's War Group (PWG) in 1980. Seetharamaiah's line also sought to restrict "annihilation of class enemies" but the PWG's emphasis was on building up mass organisations, not on developing a broad democratic front.

Since then, the principal polarisation in the naxalite movement has been between the two perceptions, advanced by Liberation and the PWG. Liberation branded PWG a group of "left adventurists" who invite state repression on hapless people, while the PWG castigated the Liberation group as one of the "revisionists" imitating the CPI(M). In theoretical terms, Liberation had "corrected the mistake of completely rejecting parliamentary politics" in 1982. The party still upholds the primacy of revolutionary peasant struggles. Even as this correction process continued, and the CPI(M-L) Liberation recorded its first electoral victory from Bihar in 1989, more naxalite factions such as the CPI(M-L) New Democracy, the CPI (ML) S.R. Bhaijee Group and the CPI(M-L) Unity Initiative were formed in that State.

In the meantime, the PWG continued with its dual line of armed struggle and building up mass organisations, focussing mainly on Andhra Pradesh, and building up a base in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. It has gained momentum steadily since the early 1990s, and after 1999 it launched such major strikes as killing Madhya Pradesh Transport Minister Likhiram Kavre in 1999, blasting the house of Telugu Desam Party leader G. Sudhakar Reddy in Andhra Pradesh in 2000, and attacking TDP leader N. Chandrababu Naidu in 2001. It has also been virtually dictating the election process in several constituencies in many States.

The PWG's merger with the Bihar- and Jharkhand-based MCC last October, leading to the formation of the CPI(Maoist), has given it new teeth, impelling the Central and State governments to address the problem of growing Left extremism with greater attention. According to a former naxalite, the period after the late 1990s could well be considered the most cohesive phase of the "armed struggle" in spite of the persistence of disparate groups such as the CPI(M-L) Janashakti, the CPI(M-L) New Democracy and the CPI(M-L) Provisional Committee.

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