As well as being the 150th anniversary of what is variously called the first all-India anti colonial war, or, in the words of English revisionists, the ‘mutiny’, 2007 will also be the 40th anniversary of Naxalbari. To remind myself and to follow up on the previous post about Mahasweta Devi, I’ve extracted a couple of pages from my Critique of Exotica (2000) – Lal Salaam.
Charu Mazumdar was born in 1918, studied at Edwards College at Pabna (now Bangladesh), and joined the CPI in 1938. He had been involved in the Tebhaga revolutionary movement and was arrested in its post-1947 phase (Banerjee 1984: 320). Later he worked as an organiser amongst tea plantation workers in Darjeeling’s Siliguri area where he was born. For several years before 1967 he and other then CPI(M) comrades had been building connections amongst the Santal peasantry. It was with these people, in Naxalbari, in the Darjeeling foothills, that the uprising began which was to give its name to a range of militant struggles over the next ten years. That the Naxalbari uprising, which first consisted of seizure of lands from rich landlords, destruction of debt records for bonded labour and hounding of money-lenders from the area, was soon put down by the police, is a matter of record (Ram 1972; Sen Gupta 1972). Debate over the subsequent consequences and importance of the uprising raged. The development of a Maoist political movement, the formation of a new communist party – Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), of which Mazumdar became the General Secretary – and the extension of agrarian struggles to other parts of India, especially Andhara Pradesh and the Panjab, were a greater legacy (see Chatterjee 1997a: 92).
The Naxalbari peasantry and tribal peoples had good cause to fight. Naxalite demands addressed frustration on the part of the peasantry with the years of ‘high sounding words, grandiose plans, reforms galore’ (Rai and Prasad 1973: 458) by the Nehru administration. While green revolution farming methods had opened opportunities for the middle and landowning classes, the tribal and peasant farmers had already been dispossessed of land and so also of the opportunity to invest in the fertilisers and seeds of the green revolution advance. Thus the disjunction between landowners and peasants led to a wider dissatisfaction. An early list of Naxalite demands was reported as:
The first priority is … forcible occupation of lands belonging to big landlords … overthrow of the existing big bourgeoisie rule of the country … and the immediate withdrawal of India from the Commonwealth … so that India would range herself against American and British imperialism. (in Ghose 1971: 447–8)
The swift retaliation of the police against Naxalbari did not prevent leaders like Charu Mazumdar continuing and extending the struggle through the politicisation of other regions, of peasant, tribal and student sectors. This entailed calling on students not to let the ‘electoral politics of the revisionist parties’ divert them like an ‘obscene film’ and for them to attend to the ‘century old cry of the landless poor peasantry’ and stand by their side, moving forward ‘with arms in our hands like the guerrillas of Vietnam’ (from a leaflet entitled ‘Students and Youth: Unite with Workers and Landless Peasants, Unite, Unite with Them’, reproduced in Damas 1991: 206–8). The formation of the All-India Coordinating Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR) and subsequently the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in May 1969 were convoluted steps in this process. The new revolutionary party (CPI-ML) was announced by Kanu Sanyal from the rostrum of that year’s May Day rally in the large expanse of Calcutta’s Maidan park (Banerjee 1984: 131).
The extension of Maoist struggle to other areas did not proceed without internal tensions amongst the Naxalite cadres. The Andhara Naxalites, for example, did not join the new party formation because of a dispute over Mazumdar’s interpretation of Mao Zedong’s strategic principles (or MTTT: Mao Tse-Tung Thought [see Mohanty 1979]) – they were also possibly remembering the Central directive to capitulate at Telengana. It was reported that ‘the domineering attitude of the leading figures … from West Bengal alienated more and more Naxalite groups besides the Andhara Committee’ (Rai and Prasad 1973: 473). Sushital Ray Chaudhury, from the Andhara group said that ‘Mazumdar’s interpretation of the word annihilation was without doubt against Mao Tse-Tung thought’ (in Ghosh 1971: 136). The slogan of ‘annihilation of the class enemy’, celebrated in the war word khatam (see Banerjee 1984: 112; Seth 1995 [i]), was thought to have led to ‘indiscriminate killing [which] would only isolate the party from the masses by forfeiting their sympathy’ (Rai and Prasad 1973: 477). The criticism was raised that Mazumdar was not relying on the masses as Mao had prescribed, as, according to Chatterjee (himself a Birbhum Naxalite) much of the peasant support of the movement had turned into passive sympathy by the end of 1969 (Ghosh 1971: 147). Against this Mazumdar countered that ‘only after guerrilla squads had cleared an area of “class enemies” by annihilating some of them and forcing others to flee the countryside, should revolutionary peasant committees be formed’ (Rai and Prasad 1973: 475). [ii] The procedure of operating in small and secret cells was in part a necessity forced by the brutal response of the state as ‘mass actions were likely to expose the guerrilla fighters to the forces of law and order’ (Rai and Prasad 1973: 475). The move of the struggle into the urban metropolis of Calcutta after the decision of the Party in April 1970 to extend operations into industrial areas was designed to address the apparent failure of hartals (strikes) and other conventional methods of struggle which had been ‘largely blunted against organised capitalist attacks in the form of lock-out, lay-off, and closures’ (Ghosh 1971: 444). This change of programme born of ‘a certain suspicion of the communist preoccupation with trade unions’, of their ‘economism’ (Seth 1995: 493), meant increased mobilisation of student revolutionaries which necessarily complicated internal party relations. Mass action was also difficult in the city, but in the years of 1970 and 1971 more and more frequent incidents escalated the conflict with the police who, having faced a number of ‘annihilations’ themselves, adopted a ‘shoot to kill’ policy (Damas 1991: 97). In response, those students who had followed the call of the CPI(ML) to leave the city and live and work in the peasant areas, drew the anger of the police upon themselves, conspicuous as they were as students living in villages and in the apparent absence of the secretive guerrillas, they bore the brunt of the repressive reaction.
The Chinese Communist Party had welcomed the Naxalites with banner headlines in 1969 – it was the Peking Review of 14 July 1967 that declared ‘A peal of thunder has crashed over the land of India’ (reproduced in Damas 1991: 276–9). But their support for the CPI(ML) lasted only two and a half years, after which they intervened in the conflict between Mazumdar and the other leaders: ‘It was not until after Peking had indicated its serious reservations about Charu Mazumdar’s leadership and tactical line that dissent in the party began snowballing into revolt, leading to his virtual isolation before his arrest’ (Ram 1972). Mazumdar’s life came to an end on 28 July 1972 as a result of a heart attack in police custody a few days after his arrest in – he was refused adequate medical treatment and was not taken to hospital until 27 July, a mere 24 hours before his demise (Banerjee 1984: 321). In assessing the tactical line of the CPI(ML), it is of course difficult to sort out the factional squabbles and attribute cause and blame. Certainly the fragmentation of the Naxalites into several separate groups has persisted up to the present, but this factor is not a sufficient explanation of the decline of the movement. Rather, the role of the police in ‘conducting raids, tortures and indiscriminate arrests … in order to force people to make a choice in favour of the police against the Naxalites’ (Ghosh 1971: 155) was important alongside the conflict with the CPI(M). With its secret cell invisibility and displaced student cadres caught up in a factional war of attrition with other communists who should have been comrades, it is understandable that the ‘romance’ of the Naxalites faded under this pressure, as Duyker explains:
the movement was doomed because the CPI (M-L) was no match for the ruthless organised power of the state. When the cost to the [Santal] tribal community (in casualties, arrested menfolk, confiscated food supplies and disrupted cultivation) appeared too great to continue the struggle, Santal-Naxalite resistance crumbled. (Duyker 1981: 258–9)
When the movement ‘developed cracks’ the students and peasants on the fringe of the movement ‘opted for Congress because no other party could protect them from the police’ (Ghosh 1971: 129).
The role of the state in suppressing the Naxalite movement was one that extended across India, but in Bengal it was also fratricidal communist rivalries that had a hand in the slaughter. The received ‘official’ version has been distilled by Bandyopadhyay from Sumanta Banerjee’s excellent book In the Wake of Naxalbari: [iii]
With increasing help from the Centre and imported paramilitary and military forces, police retaliation against the CPI(M-L) urban guerrillas began to gain momentum from the last quarter of 1970. No mercy was shown to any CPI(M-L)cadre or supporter if caught … The CPI(M) felt threatened because of another reason. The mid-term poll was scheduled to be held in March 1971. While the CPI(M) was preparing for the elections, the CPI(M-L) urban actions were disrupting the status quo and threatening the electoral polls … To ensure smooth voting for its supporters, the CPI(M) sought to clear its strongholds of ‘Naxalite elements’ … A bloody cycle of interminable assaults and counter-assaults, murders and vendetta was initiated. The ranks of both the CPI(M) and CPI(M-L) dissipated their militancy in mutual fightings leading to the elimination of a large number of their activists, and leaving the field open to the police. (Banerjee, excerpted in Bandyopadhyay 1986: x–xi) (fn 3)[iv]
Does this story of factional strife, leadership squabble, and parliamentarist opportunism tell it how it was or is? Of course it is a partial account, and contestation by competing traditions makes any evaluation from afar difficult.[v]
[i] Charu Mazumdar proposed a liquidation of ‘the political, economic and social authority of the class enemy’ (Mazumdar 1969: 13, quoted in Seth 1995: 498), and this started:
only by liquidating the feudal classes in the countryside … this campaign for the annihilation of the class enemy can be carried out only by inspiring the poor and landless peasants with the politics of establishing the political power of the peasants in the countryside by destroying the dominant feudal classes. (Mazumdar Dec. 1969 quoted in Banerjee 1984: 112).
[ii] It is worth noting that these are interpretations of interpretations. Even to the extent that Charu Mazumdar can be considered representative of one kind of Naxalite, this has no chance but to be (mis)read through the thickets of sect and faction, and outsider commentary, that have accrued in the 30 years since the founding of the CPI(ML). This of course is the problem with all contested history – my interest here is only to note that my readings would also read in a particular and partial way, my interest being not merely to encourage informed attention to communist struggle.
[iii] This was first published in 1980 in Calcutta, but reissued in 1984 under the title: India’s Simmering Revolution: The Naxalite Uprising by Zed Books, London.
[iv] Sumanta Banerjee goes further than the excerpted passage quoted here. Referring to then Home Minister Jyoti Basu seeking assistance from the Eastern Frontier Rifles, a central force, to suppress the movement, he writes:
The party [CPI(M)] believed in controlled violence in rural areas aimed at minor goals, like wage increase for agricultural labourers or restitution of land … A certain amount of agitation, often bordering on violence, suited the CPI(M) or the other parliamentary leftist parties, as long as it was contained within limits and controlled by the leaders, and did not attack the roots of the prevailing system by trying to seize political power. Since they were members of a united front of heterogeneous classes, the CPI(M) wanted to make the peasants believe that they were carrying the flag of the revolution and were out to destroy the status quo, and the middle class believe that they were arresting the danger which threatened them, and the Centre that they were faithful to the Constitution. (Banerjee 1984: 140)
[v] For example, it is tempting to make a judgement as to the contemporary fortunes of the Basu-led CPI(M) Communists in Bengal. Mallick suggests their effort has failed, they themselves of course suggest a degree of success. Here, although the examples of communist struggle that might be cited do not always, or indeed primarily, refer to parliamentarism, it is true that a degree of electoral success, at least in terms of years in power, has long been the preserve of this section of the Communist movement in Bengal. Though it was not always so. Since 1967 CPI(M) Communists have dominated the state government for all but a few years of President’s rule (and Jyoti Basu has now been in charge for over 20 years). This context introduces specific conditions for any evaluation of struggles. Mallick writes:
The Indian Communist movement is unique in operating within the institutions of a parliamentary democracy not unlike that of the industrialised West, while trying to develop a base in conditions of extreme poverty and exploitation. India combines many of the institutions of an advanced capitalist state with cultural and economic conditions often not far removed from feudalism. (Mallick 1993: 21)
That these ‘feudal’ conditions were the main contradiction faced by activists in India is the most obvious context in which to evaluate parliamentarism. The poor, those in bonded labour, the landless peasantry, the disenfranchised labourers on tea estates, plantations, in rural agriculture and urban industry – formal and informal sectors – provides a massive constituency of a communist politics.
References are available in Critique of Exotica.