For young urban Naxalites out to free India’s peasantry, those days were nightmarish, brutal, but electric
So what do you think of the party? Don’t you think it is going the revisionist way?” I still remember my friend’s face as he asked me this question some 40 years ago, sometime in January 1967. He had lowered his head and voice to ask it. He was my senior by a couple of years at Calcutta’s Presidency College. We had both been very recently involved in a prolonged students’ strike. Tired from the struggle, we were now sitting on the grounds of the college, talking. My friend’s intense face, resting on his knees that he had locked into an embrace, was turned towards me. His eyes, I could see, were searching mine for an answer.
A smoggy Calcutta evening was gathering around us while the historic buildings of the college — the Baker Laboratory to our right, the beautiful main building in front of us, and the unaesthetic, typically pwd, Economics building to our back slowly sank into darkness, assuming the contours of dark, mute, and monstrous witnesses to our whispered conversation.
The “party” in question was the Communist Party of India (Marxist). I date the beginning of the Naxalite movement from the day my friend asked me this question. To explain why, I need to say a few words about the strike we had organised in the winter of 1966. It was aimed at protesting the expulsion from the college of several Leftist students. The authorities had also refused to receive applications for admission to the ma classes from Leftist student leaders, and among them was the future Naxalite leader Ashim Chatterjee.
Our strike was sponsored by the unofficial student wing of the CPI(M), the Bengal Provincial Students’ Federation (Left) (BPSF-l). We wanted to carry on with the strike into January and beyond. Readers of Lenin and Mao, we thought every “struggle” should be notched up to a higher and higher pitch. The party, however, was pressing us to end the strike and to attend to the forthcoming general elections in the state. It was an official “mandate” from the BPSF (then led by the likes of Biman Bose and the late Dinesh Majumdar) that forced us to withdraw the strike. We obeyed but festered. Was an election more important than a strike? Had not Lenin compared the bourgeois parliament to a pigsty?
The main debate in the Communist parties since the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s turned precisely — at least in our eyes — on this question. The Leftist students at Presidency College were mostly Maoists. We had rejected what the Chinese Communist Party described as Soviet Social Imperialism. Purists at heart, we felt suspicious of the ambiguous gestures the CPI(M) made on the debate about peaceful versus violent transition to socialism. As Maoists, we were convinced about the necessity of violence. Looking back, however, I can see from my friend’s question that there were Maoist rumblings of disaffection in the party months before any peasants or tribals took up arms in Naxalbari or Phansidewa.
The rest, as they say, is history. From whispers to ginger groups to co-ordination committees to the final announcement of a Maoist party — the CPI(M) — in 1969, was perhaps an inevitable path the Sino-Soviet ideological split opened up for us. The old, Stalinist machinery of the CPI(M) did not know how to contain or nurture the dissidence of the idealistic youth. The call of Comrade Charu Mazumdar — the new leader of the Maoist party — for liberating the country with the help of a peasant army was much more heady and inspiring.
Many of the urban youth who went, red-guard style, to liberate villages in the late 1960s came back within weeks with acute bowel problems. They all discovered the city-country divide in minute everyday aspects of their comportments: their languages, clothes, eating habits, even in their spectacles. They tried assassinating a few landlords, usually with disastrous results.
Many realised that their understanding of rural India was as shaky as the Indian economy was, at least according to their own theories. There developed internal debates among these revolutionaries about the efficacy of the cult of violence that Mazumdar preached. My friend, for example, who operated in the Nadia district, abjured violence even though he remained a steadfast Naxalite and spent time in jail.
What was it like to live through those days? Nightmarish, if one remembers the police brutality and torture that was unleashed on people suspected to be Naxalites. Nightmarish also, if one remembers the fratricidal murders that were to take place in the cities between CPI(M) and CPI(ML) cadres as the police flushed the urban revolutionaries out of the villages (at least one formerly-Leftist senior Bengali police officer later claimed credit for hatching this deliberate strategy of killing poison with poison).
Brutal, if one remembers the killing of innocent traffic constables carried out in the name of the revolution. But electric, if one remembers the idealism of the young men and women who got swept up in the movement. Later, watching films on Northern Ireland, I would be reminded of my Naxalite friends — young men and women who all seemed to be stuffed with gunpowder, their bodies and minds ready to explode at a moment’s notice. Events forced them to accept that their revolution had been defeated. Many lost their lives or careers. Many felt vanquished. Some became civil liberties activists. I still come across my Naxalite friends of youth. Defeated they may have been but I have never felt that they have let go of their anger at the injustices of our society, at the corruption and venality of power in modern India. I can still look into the ageing eyes of my (now) old Naxalite friends and be reminded of that famous saying of Mao’s: “to rebel is justified.”
Chakrabarty is a Professor of History at the University of Chicago
Jun 02 , 2007