It was a small item in that day's newspaper. But to Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, the news about peasants killing a policeman in Naxalbari in north Bengal on May 25, 1967, literally leapt out of the page. Rai Chaudhuri, then a 23-year-old student at Calcutta University, was part of a growing number of youth in elite colleges who were fired by revolutionary ideology but were increasingly getting disillusioned with mainstream Communist parties.
Naxalbari was like a clarion call to Rai Chaudhuri — who retired as head of the department of physics in Presidency College in 2004 and was one of those who featured in V S Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now — and many of the best and brightest of his generation. "We were elated. We had only read about the armed peasant struggles in China and Vietnam. Now it was actually happening here in our land," says Rai Chaudhuri. Soon posters supporting Naxalbari appeared in College Street and elsewhere. Slogans such as 'China's Chairman is our Chairman' suddenly sprouted on Kolkata walls. The lawns of Presidency College became a meeting ground for students from Calcutta and neighbouring areas, and the informal group came to be known as the Presidency Coalition.
By April 1969, a Maoist party — the CPI(ML) — had been formed and Naxalite leader Charu Majumdar's call to liberate the countryside was finding ready takers among students. The rules as framed by Majumdar — himself a college dropout from Siliguri and a veteran of the Tebhaga movement — for the young organisers were clear: Stay only in the house of a landless or poor peasant; stay secretly right from the first; and never expose yourselves. The rural stint did not always go down well with city-bred students. Dipesh Chakrabarty, a Presidency College student of the 1960s who now teaches in University of Chicago, recalls: "Many of the urban youth who went to liberate villages came back within weeks with acute bowel problems."
For those like Rai Chaudhuri, who decided to stay on, life was hard. "The CPI(ML) had been formed by then, and the line of 'annihilation of class enemies' had taken shape. The idea was that after killing a hated landlord in an area, the action would itself act as an 'organiser'. After one or two circuits, I was sent to a new area where there had just been an annihilation. I tried sincerely but could not reap any organisational harvest from that action," he says. This was also the time brutal killings became part of life in Bengal. Indeed, one of Majumdar's favourite dictums was: "One who has not smeared his hands red with the blood of the class enemy is not fit to be called a Communist." Calcutta, in particular, lived in daily fear of Naxalite violence.
The violent turn to the movement and the subsequent police brutality alienated some of the urban youth. "While I supported Maoism, I did not have a taste for the cult of violence that Charu Majumdar preached. Also, I did not have the courage to face the prospect of police torture," admits Chakrabarty. The distaste for violence among some students is confirmed by Arun Mukherjee, who had an intimate knowledge of the psyche of the young activists. As deputy commissioner of police in the special branch from 1969-72, he was in charge of interrogating arrested Naxalites. Mukherjee, who has just released a book on the period, believes that the egregious violence propagated by Naxalite leaders deeply unsettled many students from middle-class families. He cites the case of a Presidency College student who developed "serious mental aberrations" after committing an act of brutal annihilation.
This was also the time when members of the underworld joined the Naxalite movement — sometimes actively encouraged by the police — leading to an upsurge of violence. There were many students who were shot in cold blood and several more put behind bars. In end-1971, Rai Chaudhuri — who by then was married and had a daughter — was arrested with another prominent Naxalite leader, Asim Chatterjee — better known as Kaka — in Deoghar. After having spent 11 months in jail, Rai Chaudhuri was released on the condition that he and his family leave the country. In August 1972, Rai Chaudhuri was taken straight from jail to Dum Dum airport to board a flight to London where he went on to complete his PhD.
Not everyone was as fortunate as Rai Chaudhuri. For some students, their careers were virtually finished. There were, however, many who picked up the pieces of their lives and moved on. There was, for instance, Amal Sanyal who sat for his university exams from prison and later settled down in New Zealand. Chakrabarty joined IIM Calcutta in what he says was a "peculiar mood that combined elements of self-denial with those of self-affirmation". Some like Kaka stayed in active politics and even contested elections.
But for most of the youth from elite colleges who dedicated the best years of their lives to the cause of revolution, the Naxalite movement fundamentally changed their lives. Rai Chaudhuri recently took to the streets to protest the police firing in Nandigram. Chakrabarty's involvement with the Subaltern Studies project would never have happened without the Naxalite movement. While the fires of revolution sparked by Naxalbari have spread and taken on a different character, the events that happened 40 years ago still remain a source of inspiration for the 1960s generation.