End of a revolution

Print edition : April 23, 2010

Kanu Sanyal in an agricultural field at Hatighisa village near Naxalbari on September 13, 2005.-TAMAL ROY/AP

Kanu Sanyal, the man who created the term naxalism and gave this extremist form of communism a permanent place in Indian history, took his own life on March 23 by hanging himself at his residence in Hatighisa village near Naxalbari from where his peasant revolution originated. If Charu Majumdar is considered the ideologue of the naxal movement, Kanu Sanyal was its organiser and iron fist.

He was a revolutionary to the core and had unimpeachable integrity. He spent all his life among the peasants for whose cause he had taken up arms, and considered their sorrows and problems as his own. Such was his legend that even those who differed radically with his politics did not hesitate to express their sorrow over his death.

Biman Bose, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: His simple, unostentatious lifestyle can be a role model for everyone. His colleague Sitaram Yechury said: Kanu Sanyals death is very unfortunate. Of late, particularly after Nandigram and Lalgarh, he has been saying that the line adopted by Maoists does not conform to the revolutionary understanding that the naxalite movement had at the time when it started. Yechury also pointed out that Sanyal had been supporting all major agitations and programmes organised by the CPI(M)-led Left Front in Bengal against imperialism and other issues.

There are some doubts about the year of Kanu Sanyals birth; according to some, it was 1928, while most others believe it was 1932. Sanyal was born in the Kurseong subdivision of Darjeeling district in North Bengal. He was the second-youngest of the seven children of Annada Govinda Sanyal, a clerk in the local court. After completing his matriculation from the Kurseong ME School (later renamed the Pushparani Roy Memorial High School), he enrolled in the Jalpaiguri College in the science stream, which he did not complete. Subsequently, he took up a job as a clerk in the Kalimpong court; he was later transferred to the Siliguri court.

In 1949, Sanyal was briefly jailed for waving a black flag at Bidhan Chandra Roy, the Congress Chief Minister of West Bengal, as a mark of protest against the banning of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1948. It was while in prison that he got acquainted with Charu Majumdar, who was a member of the CPI district secretariat. In 1952, Sanyal became a whole-timer of the CPI, and when the party split in 1964, he, along with Charu Majumdar, sided with the breakaway faction, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Soon after the CPI(M)s formation, a section of leaders wanted the party to add armed revolution to its agenda following the example of China. The party leadership did not entirely dismiss the possibility of an armed uprising, and so there remained within it a space for the more radical members. Prominent among them were Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal.

In 1965, Charu Majumdar came out with his famous Eight Documents, which essentially exhorted the party to fight against revisionism within itself, follow the example of Mao Zedongs China and take up armed struggle against the state, and underlined that action, rather than politics, was the need of the day. The two factions of the party continued to co-exist, albeit a little uneasily, under the same banner for a while. Their differences became irreconcilable when the first CPI(M)-led United Front government was formed in 1967.

At that time, Kanu Sanyal, a member of the CPI(M)s Darjeeling district committee, was the most important grass-roots organiser of tea estate workers and peasants. According to him, the situation then was ripe for an uprising, thanks to the tireless work of the party workers in the region. Meanwhile, some of the more militant cadre in the party had, on Charu Majumdars directive, already started seizing arms and acquiring land forcibly on behalf of the peasants from the big landholders.

The spark that led to the Naxalbari uprising came towards the fag end of April 1967. Bhigul Kissan, a landless farmer who worked on the land of Iswar Tirkey, a powerful landlord, was ousted from his land. He then appealed to the Krishak Sabha, whose most prominent leader was Kanu Sanyal, to intervene on his behalf. The peasants laid siege to Iswar Tirkeys land, and Tirkey, who was a member of the Bangla Congress, a major constituent of the ruling coalition, used his political influence to ensure the police take action against the agitating peasants.

What followed was a series of police raids that culminated in the police-peasant standoff at Boromaniram Jot in Naxalbari on May 24, in which Sonam Wangdo, a police officer, was killed by the peasants arrows. The next day, the police opened fire at a Krishak Sabha meeting in Prasad Jot in Naxalbari, and 11 people were killed, including seven women and two infants.

The peasant uprising, with Sanyal at the helm, then spread like wildfire in the region. On June 27, 1967, the Naxalbari Krishak Sangram Sahayak Committee was set up. Giving a huge fillip to the movement was an editorial on July 5 in Peoples Daily, the mouthpiece of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which read: A peal of spring thunder has crashed over the land of India. Revolutionary peasants in the Darjeeling area have risen in rebellion. Under the leadership of a revolutionary group of the Indian Communist Party, a red area of rural revolutionary armed struggle has been established in India. This is a development of tremendous significance for the Indian peoples revolutionary struggle.

Despite the heavy police clampdown, the movement had already captured international attention and was already being seen as a source of inspiration for peasant struggles in other parts of the country. In November that year, the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (CPI-M) was formed; the CPI(M) was later dropped after the group broke away from the party.

In the monsoon of 1968, Kanu Sanyal led a team of five revolutionaries to a trip to China where they received a warm welcome. It is believed that in their two-and-a-half month stay in China they even took military training.

At an extended meeting held from April 19 to 22 in 1969, the AICCR decided to form a new party called the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Charu Majumdar hailed the event as the beginning of a war of annihilation.

On May 1, Kanu Sanyal announced the establishment of the new party at a gathering on the Sahid Minar grounds in Kolkata. In March the following year, the CPI(M-L) State committee was established, and in May, the first party congress took place in which Charu Majumdars line of khatam annihilation of class enemies was endorsed unanimously. Meanwhile, police crackdown on the party became more severe and ideological differences began to crop up within the top leadership. Kanu Sanyal, however, remained firmly behind Charu Majumdars policies.

Following the congress of the CPI(M-L) in May, one of its leaders Souren Bose had gone to China with the party documents. This time, however, the Communist Party of China was strongly critical of the CPI(M-L)s activities, and rejected the latters claim that Chinas Chairman is our Chairman.

They said this had nothing to do with Mao, and the line that we had chosen was one of the main reasons for our debacle, an old naxalite leader told Frontline. None of the facts relating to this episode has ever been published, and its veracity is not absolute either; but according to the general prison lore of the period between 1971 and 1972, Souren Bose, upon his return to India, discussed Chinas criticism with Charu Majumdar, and hoped the latter would present the facts before the party. Although some of the leaders may have been privy to this information, by and large most members of the party were not aware of it.

Sanyal did not know of it either as he was in prison. Souren Bose discussed the issue with him after Charu Majumdars death, when they were imprisoned together in the Srikakulam conspiracy case in Andhra Pradesh. Many of Charu Majumdars followers will, however, deny that this ever took place. They will argue that if it did indeed take place, then why did Charu Majumdar not talk about it, the old naxal leader said.

In Charu Majumdars view, the naxalbari movement and the Terai upheaval were a part of the process of overthrowing the prevalent social order and seizing state power. In other words, Charu Majumdar reasoned, the movement was not an anti-feudal struggle for land but an armed struggle against the state itself.

Kanu Sanyal fully endorsed this view in his Terai Report (1968), and on no occasion did he publicly disagree with Majumdar over this issue. He did, however, come out with a paper in 1973 from prison called More about Naxalbari, in which his reservations against many of Majumdars views came to light.

In it, Sanyal argued that the naxalbari movement was an agrarian uprising that would finally culminate in an armed movement. He even suggested that Majumdars interpretation that the movement was one against the state was wrong and that it was one of the reasons for the debacle that the party was facing then. It was not that Kanu Sanyal was against the idea of armed struggle against the state; he just did not consider the naxalbari movement to be that.

Sanyal also rejected Charu Majumdars advocacy of individual assassination, which, according to Ashim Chatterjee, former CPI(M-L) Central Committee member and top naxal leader of the 1970s, was anarchism of the Bakuninist kind. (Mikhail Bakunin was a Russian revolutionary and theorist of collectivist anarchism.)

Sanyal was also very critical of the activities of present-day Maoists, and denounced on more than one occasion their wanton killing of innocent villagers. Although he supported the Gorkhaland movement, he did not accept the Gorkha Janamukti Morchas demand to include the Terai and parts of the Doars in the state it sought to create.

In 1977, after the Left Front assumed power in West Bengal, Chief Minister Jyoti Basu took the initiative to have Sanyal, who was serving a sentence for his involvement in the Srikakulam case, released from prison. Even when he was in prison, Sanyal was getting increasingly critical of the CPI(M-L) and its activities; and after his release, he openly denounced his party, even questioning the need for its existence in the first place. This further isolated him from his own movement and from the political milieu with which he could not relate to.

We may have been against certain policies of the party but when Kanu-da rejected the reason for the formation of the party and its glorious history, we just could not accept that, Amar Bhattacharjee, writer and former naxal leader of the 1970s and 1980s, told Frontline.

Kanu Sanyal tied up with Ashim Chatterjee and Asit Sinha to form the Organisation of Communist Committee of Revolutionaries. Later in 1984, he formed the Organisation Committee of India (Marxist-Leninist). Then, finally in the early 1990s, he set up another organisation called the CPI(M-L) ironically; a name he had rejected a decade earlier but subsequently moved away from it in around 2000. After that, he was not known to be in any organisation but continued to work at the grass-roots level mainly with the tea workers.

His was a unique life of Spartan simplicity. He lived among the simple peasants of Naxalbari. He resided in a mud hut in Hatighisa village, which did not even have a toilet, and he used to go to a nearby river to bathe. There have been times when his house was brought down by herds of elephants roaming the area, but then he would build it up again, an old friend of Kanu Sanyals told Frontline.

Dr Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, a senior naxal leader of the 1970s, remembers seeing Sanyal in a public transport bus in Kolkata in the mid-1980s. It was a very crowded bus, with hardly any space to stand. I recognised him immediately and offered him my seat. But he politely declined and continued to stand, he said.

Right until the end of his life, Kanu Sanyal remained a rebel and a fighter. In 2006, while travelling in the unreserved compartment of a Kolkata-bound train, dacoits boarded the compartment and robbed passengers of their belongings. While everybody else gave in without a fight, the septuagenarian revolutionary put up a resistance and received stab injuries. Age and illness could not rob him of his spirit

In some ways, his career seemed to be one of failure a revolutionary who lost faith in the process of the revolution that he himself had engineered, an activist who could not find a permanent platform to operate from, and finally a man committing suicide, which even those who were most closely associated with him could not explain.

But, as Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri said, his life was not a failure in the wider perspective of history. He said: If you ask me if Kanu Sanyals and our movements, naxalbari and the Terai uprising, were all in vain, I would say no for two reasons. First, take the case of the big landlords in West Bengal: they did not fight the onslaught of the CPI(M) and the reason for that is the naxals. It was better for the landlords to accept the terms of the CPI(M) than face us. Our movement played a huge role in ridding this State of landlordism.

Our second contribution is we proved that the idea of an armed agrarian revolution as the way of liberation of the people is not just an idea from a foreign land, but a practicable one that was applicable in this State itself. Naxalbari proved precisely that.

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