Road to Naxalbari

Published : Jan 11, 2013 00:00 IST

The book is a treasure trove of information and anecdotes on the Naxalbari movement.

IT was April 1967. The peasants movement had not yet taken a definite shape but was on its way to becoming part of history by the name Naxalbari movement. Its architect, Charu Majumdar, had already written the historic Eight Documents that were to be the guiding principles of the planned revolution. With the movement about to be unleashed, Majumdar wanted the views of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on the documents. He entrusted his Nepali comrade, Krishnabhakta Sharma from Kalimpong, with the task of carrying the documents to China. Though fully aware of the extreme dangers involved in the expedition, Krishnabhakta was willing to do the bidding. Years later, he recounted his conversation with Majumdar: I shall have to confront death at every step. Therefore, if this work is to be done, then subsequently other comrades will also have to be enterprising. I am ready to go. He set off the very next morning with the documents and a letter to Mao Zedong from Majumdar. Majumdars parting words to Krishnabhakta were: It hardly matters if you are caught, but if these papers are discovered then we are finished. Krishnabhaktas journey was the stuff adventure stories are made of. He was apprehended by a gang of Tibetan dacoits called Khampa. He managed to escape from them. For 52 days he travelled, encountering innumerable obstacles until he was caught, fortunately for him, by the Peoples Liberation Army of China in Tibet, and thus he found himself in the office of the CPC. Eight Documents thus reached China. Krishnabhakta returned to India with a Red Book signed by Mao Zedong, which was given to him by the CPC. When the Naxalbari uprising broke out, in April 1967, the CPC mouthpiece, Peoples Daily, published in its July 5 edition the famous article titled Spring Thunder Over India, in which it said: Armed struggle in Darjeeling are terrifying the reactionaries in India. They have realised that a disaster is imminent and have started crying.

The Naxalbari movement continues to interest not just academics and sociologists but also the general masses. Whatever ones political leaning, there is no denying the fact that the movement was a historic social phenomenon that impacted different aspects of social, cultural and academic life and left an indelible mark on the very fabric of society. A lot has been written about it in different genresmemoirs, novels and essays. Revolution Unleashed: A History of Naxalbari Movement in India 1964-72 by Amar Bhattacharya gives a well-researched, objective and uncomplicated account of the initial years of the movement.

Though the author himself had joined the movement as a student in the late 1960s, and later assumed the leadership of a pro-Charu Majumdar faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the book betrays no subjective bias. It is rather a detached account presenting all important perspectives and substantiating with documentary evidence the various points of view and accounts from various people.

The book begins with a lucid exposition of the internal developments of the communist movement and the inner-party struggle of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI), leading to its first split in 1964. In the face of the split, Majumdars stand was unique. According to the author, between the end of 1962 and the beginning of 1964, events at the Dumdum Central Jail gave the first indications of an impending and inevitable break-up. Majumdar was incarcerated in a second floor cell in ward no.11 of the jail, and along with him were the stalwarts of the communist movementMuzaffar Ahmed, Pramod Dasgupta, Jyoti Basu, Hare Krishna Konar, Manoranjan Ray, Ganesh Ghosh and others. These leaders felt that there was no alternative to breaking up the party; however, there was also another strong opinion that suggested a parallel movement within the party without a formal split.

Majumdar, according to the author, did not agree with either of these views. He felt the leaders were not clear in their bid to break up the party and that it was only a negative call against the revisionists struggle. He wondered whether in the new divided party, the democratic revolutionaries would come forward to give leadership or rather surrender to the rulers as had happened in the Tebhaga and Telangana movements. In fact, according to Souren Basu, a senior naxalite leader, one day while Hare Krishna Konar was conducting a class on political matters in the jail, Majumdar asked him: What is the leadership thinking about enabling the peasant to protect his rights and land? Konar apparently avoided giving a reply. On January 28, 1965, months after the party split, Majumdar came out with a paper titled Our duty in the present situation. In this, he directed setting up units (an activist group with at least five members) that would work independently of each other and whose members would not be known to the police. The main emphasis of the revolution in India will be to make a success of peasants revolt, he wrote in the paper.

By 1966, the process of another split in the party had started in Naxalbari, Kharibari and Phasidewa (in and around the Naxalbari region in north Bengal). Instances of farmers rebellion began to surface in different parts of north Bengal. On one occasion, women workers of College Valley Tea Garden in Ghoom in Darjeeling district surrounded the Punjab Armed Police personnel present there and tried to snatch their rifles. In the firing by the retreating police, a worker was killed.

The two incidents that triggered the Naxalbari uprising are extensively dealt with in the book. Bighal Kishan, who narrates the incident, was working on the land of one Ishwar Tirkey, who was also a leader of the Bangla Congress. When, at the call of the Krishak Samity, Bighal went to occupy Tirkeys land in Naxalbari, he was beaten up by Tirkeys henchmen and had his plough and bullock taken away by them. In protest, peasant leaders, including Prahlad Singh and Sonamoti Singh, surrounded Tirkeys house. The police were notified, and on May 24, when they arrived in the vicinity to arrest the agitating peasants, they found themselves surrounded by around 1,000 local people. In the agitated situation, Inspector Sonam Wangde of the Enforcement Department, Naxalbari police station, was struck by three arrows and was killed. The following day, Prahlad and Sonamoti organised a womens meeting on the Naxalbari border. A patrol van of the Eastern Frontier Rifles that was passing by stopped at a distance and the armed personnel opened fire on the congregation. Eleven people, including seven women and two children, were killed. From that day Naxalbari became emblazoned in red, signifying the beginning of a new chapter in history, says the author.

An inspiration and the split

The Naxalbari movement was as much a cultural upheaval as a political one. While students and youth of Kolkata would scrawl on walls, Tomar bari, amar bari Naxalbari (Your house, my house is Naxalbari bari being house in Bengali), intellectuals and artistes drew inspiration from the movement, and the movement in turn was inspired by the arts. The famous thespian Utpal Dutta wrote a play titled Teer (Arrow) based on the Naxalbari incident, and the folk singer Ajit Panday sang, Terai kande go, Kande amar hiya/Naxalbari ma kande, Saptakanya lagiya (Terai weeps and so does my heart/Mother Naxalbari weeps for her seven daughters), the seven daughters being the women killed in the police firing. In fact, a new trend in art and literature emerged around the naxalite movement, including theatre, dance recitals, poetry, music and songs. But where the Naxalbari agitation had the strongest impact was the student community.

The police came down heavily on the movement, and by the end of August 1967, about 1,000 peasants, along with their leaders, were arrested from Naxalbari and its adjoining areas. Kanu Sanyal, one of the most important leaders of the movement, however, gave the police the slip and headed for Peking (Beijing) along with three of his comrades. After a six-day trek they reached Nepal, and from there a special aircraft of the Chinese Air Force took them to Peking on September 25.

A year later, Kanu Sanyal submitted his famous Report on the Terai Agitation, which had a remarkable similarity to Mao Zedongs Report on Hunan Farmers Revolution. Subsequently, Radio Peking broadcast Kanu Sanyals report in its Hindi, Bengali and English services. The decision to form the CPI(ML) was taken on April 22, 1969, in total secrecy. It would be a rural-based party with emphasis on armed revolution. There would be absolute secrecy as far as the party organisation and membership was concerned. Among those present at the meeting were Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Souren Basu, Sushital Roychoudhury, Asit Sen and Satyanarayan Singh. On May 1, at Sahid Minar in Calcutta (Kolkata), a popular venue for mass meetings, Kanu Sanyal stood under a huge cut-out of Mao Zedong and announced to thunderous applause the formation of the CPI(ML). At the nearby Brigade Parade Ground, his former comrades of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Jyoti Basu and Pramode Dasgupta, were addressing a separate rally of the ruling United Front. The second split was complete.

The book gives a comprehensive account of the spread of the naxalite movement at that period in different parts of the country, including Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa (Odisha). Some of the most interesting aspects of the book are its delineation of the inner-party struggles and contradictions that ultimately surfaced at the CPI(ML) party congress on May 15-16, 1970. The session took place in Kolkatas Garden Reach Colony under the facade of a wedding reception. The main dispute at the congress was regarding Majumdars leadership, but along with that numerous other issues also came to the fore, including the very nature of the party itself. Intensive police operations and internal discord were not the only problems of the party and the movement, for it now came under severe criticism from the CPC, whose encouragement and moral support were the sustenance of the rank and file of the revolutionaries. Soon after the party congress, Souren Basu was asked to visit China, where he stayed for three months, attending political as well as military classes. On October 29, Zhou Enlai sat down for discussions with him. When Souren Basu returned to India in November 1970, he wrote a note to Majumdar apprising him of the Chinese criticism of the naxalite movement. Though Majumdar intended the news to be broken gradually to the rank and file through discussions, the news of the criticism quickly filtered out and started circulating. This not only served to demoralise the party cadres but also added to the confusion as the news was spread in an arbitrary, unclear manner. The leadership, too, stood divided on the issue of divulging the news to the rest of the party.

In the midst of all these mounting problems, on July 15, 1972, the police retrieved from an apprehended party courier a letter written by Majumdar to his wife, Lila. In the last line of the letter, Majumdar had said, If possible come to Calcutta. This gave the police the vital information that he was in Calcutta, and that same night they arrested him from his hideout at 170-A Middle Road. Majumdar was kept in the central lock-up in Lalbazar, where his health deteriorated. On July 27, he was admitted to a hospital and the following day he was declared dead. After the death of Charu Majumdar, the history of the CPI(ML) is the history of a new generation. Many have raised a question whether the history of the CPI(ML) ends with the death of Charu Majumdar. We emphatically say no, this history will forge ahead as long as a human dream for a better way of living stays alive, says the author.

It was impossible for the CPI(ML), because of the very nature of its activities, to maintain authentic records relating to the party or its programmes. Whatever little documents and papers that have survived are with various party members, most of whom have long faded into obscurity. Of course, some records and documents are still with the police. In this respect, Revolution Unleashed is of particular significance, as the author provides extensive data on the movement based on party publications, witnesses of events and police records. In the case of conflicting reports on an event, the author has presented all the versions, leaving scope for further enquiry.

The annexures contain political letters of Majumdar and other key leaders of the movement, documents, and articles from the party mouthpieces, Deshabrati and Liberation, among others. In short, the book is a treasure trove of information and anecdotes not only for those intending to do serious research on the subject that continues to be relevant even after four decades, but also for curious readers.

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