If it were some other time, the graffiti could have passed as some Stephanian's idea of a prank. Scrawled across the main tower of St Stephen's college building was the message, "China's path is our path, China's chairman is our chairman."
But it wasn't some other time.
It was 1969-70. The idea of rebellion was infecting young 'petit bourgeois' minds everywhere. The upheaval at Paris' Sorbonne University and the anti-Vietnam war protests across US campuses were already the stuff of legend. Closer home, Naxalbari had exploded into national consciousness.
So when the high wall of St Stephen's College —that rarefied oasis for the nation's elite — was used as a pad for radical propaganda, it confirmed what most observers already knew: an influential section of Stephanians had fallen to Naxalism. Slogans appeared on lecture-room blackboards, writes Daniel O' Connor, a British priest who was the college pastor from 1963 to '73, in Interesting Times in India. One such work read, "Reactionary teachers, we will have your skin for shoes for the poor"!
Contemporary insiders put the number of core Naxals in the college at the height of militancy at no more than 30 — not a big figure, but by most accounts, the single largest Maoist presence in all DU institutions. In 1968, history student Arvind Narain Das had run for president of the college student's body elections on an openly Naxal platform. He won. "We were ready to storm heaven," Dilip Simeon, a leading member of the group, was to write later.
How a revered 'pillar of the establishment' fell to 'revolutionary activity' is an enigma. Certainly, the college's democratic ethos aided the process. And there were individual influences. Awadhesh Sinha, a history student who joined in 1965, was one of the first to turn radical. Says Rabindra Ray, another early convert, "Awadhesh was known as 'Commie' Sinha. Ironically, he joined the IAS in 1970 and was vilified in an ugly incident at the coffee house."
The group's ideological hangout was a barsati near the campus where a lecturer at the university's Psychology department stayed. Ajit Pal was a Marxist iconoclast who never joined any party. "Palda, as we called him, was a mesmeric motivator. He was our mentor, guide and organiser," says a member of the group.
By 1970, their activities were entering a more serious phase. A distressed parent approached O' Connor asking him to persuade his son to give up his politics. "By then, they (the students) were well into the vortex and almost out of hearing," writes the pastor. The campus was tense. TOI reported a 'plot' to burn the college library and bomb the chapel. "We didn't know it then, but some students and teachers close to us were spying for the police," says Ray.
Just then, Das and Ray went 'UG' (underground). Some 12-13 Stephanians followed, leaving studies to join the revolution between 1970 and 1971. Das and a few others were arrested; the rest returned on their own — disillusioned and scared. Rajiv Kumar, an Economics student, was in third year when he left for Bihar in mid-December, 1970. For three months, he stayed with CPI-ML sympathisers, including a bricklayer in Munger. "One of the reasons for my return was the prospect of being asked to kill people," he says. "We were a bunch of romantics who just didn't know that we were being fed with lies."
Ray remained a 'revolutionary' till 1975. "It was easy to get in, very difficult to get out. I had to painfully think my way out. Marxism-Leninism Mao thought is rubbish," he says. Ray was to later write a book, Naxalites and Their Ideology.
"It's difficult to retain that kind of blind faith," says Simeon. "Yet, coming out was cathartic. It was soul-destroying to realise that the Chinese Communist Party was working in its own self-interest, and not for world revolution."
Simeon has fictionalised his 'UG' experience as an itinerant cleaner in a truck plying on the GT road. The short story, 'OK TATA, Mobiloil Change (and World Revolution)', appeared in Civil Lines 3. At one point, the cleaner's ustad, the driver of the truck, finds his world turned on its head when his lowly assistant suddenly starts singing the Internationale along with a couple of French hitchhikers!
It was that kind of a time.
PS: Awadhesh Sinha is additional chief secretary in the Maharashtra government. Das, Ray and Simeon went on to do their PhDs. Das, a journalist and sociologist, died in 2000. He was 52. Ray teaches at Delhi School of Economics. Simeon joined Ramjas College as a teacher in 1974. In the '80s, he was attacked brutally while leading an agitation. He is now a senior research fellow at Nehru Library. Rajiv Kumar did his DPhil from Oxford and is director of ICRIER. Ajit Pal retired in 1991 and lives in Delhi.