A class war gone wrong

  • Ideological crisis: Like Marx, the Naxals dreamt of an egalitarian society.
  • Red fort: The monuments in Naxalbari give an idea about its past.
  • Vivid memories: Khudon Mallick (left) travelled to China to meet Mao Zedong; Nathuram Biswas was a child soldier.
  • Brutal shock: Paban Singh became a Naxal after his mother was killed by the police.

Fifty years after spawning one of the bloodiest uprisings in independent India, Naxalbari is still unsure who won the battle

  • Naxalbari has an Army unit and an Air Force base, and it is surrounded by the CRPF. The government is still suspicious about the place, though most Naxals are aged or dead.

  • "Chairman Mao told us that he would give all kind of support to Indian revolutionaries as he wanted India to become a true communist state" - Khokon Majumdar, former Naxalite

  • Before the Naxalbari uprising, two opinions were presented—Majumdar’s line was outright armed revolution; Sanyal’s line was to snatch land without killing people.

Lars Bolund, a Swedish traveller and writer, visited Calcutta in the late 1960s to soak in the city’s cultural and economic elegance. To his dismay, he saw chaos and killings on the streets. After witnessing the killing of 22 people in Baranagar, he tried to understand the chaos. “What I came to know was simply stunning,” he said. “A big city was boiling just to empower the farmers in its backyards! Till then it had hardly been seen anywhere in the world—the urban middle class bursting into a revolution for poor landless people in rural areas.” It was one of the hardcore communist movements in the world, he said. People called it the Naxalite revolution.

In 1971, Bolund tried to go to Naxalbari, the birthplace of the movement, but was caught by the special branch police on the way. “The police told me they would release me only if I went back to my country. I did. My attempt to explore Naxalbari is an unrealised dream,” said Bolund, who is now a publisher in Stockholm.

Fifty years after Charu Majumdar called for armed revolution, Swedish author Peter John, a friend of Bolund, recently visited Naxalbari. He could not find any sign that a revolution had happened there in the 1960s. “In fact Naxalites of those days are apologetic,” he said. “I told them they should not be, as they did something to India which had never been done earlier—empowerment of labourers.”

Naxalbari is a block panchayat, 40km from Siliguri, north Bengal’s business hub. One of the 40 villages is also called Naxalbari and some of them lie on the banks of the river Mechi on the Nepal border. In the 1950s and 60s, they had many landlords and lush paddy fields. Now there are no landlords or paddy fields. If the landlords were eliminated by the revolutionaries for equal distribution of income from the land, why does most of Naxalbari resemble a desert? Nathuram Biswas, a villager, has the answer: “Peasants got land after the movement. But they sold their land later to promoters, and farmers’ sons have become labourers again. The entire revolution has become meaningless. I feel ashamed to call myself a Naxal after seeing what is happening in Naxalbari.”

34SunilTirkey Though his house was attacked by the Naxals and his family property was seized by the government, Sunil Tirkey (in pic) today supports the Naxal movement.

Naxalbari has an Army unit and an Air Force base, and it is surrounded by the Central Reserve Police Force. The government is still suspicious about the place, though most Naxals are aged or dead. None of the trio who inspired Naxalism—Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal—is alive. “But the word Naxalbari is still alive,” said Biswas. “They feel our sons and daughters could create another movement and destabilise the people in power, like it did five decades back.”

Biswas was a student activist and was not in the armed movement. He fled to Nepal to escape arrest and worked as a courier of messages sent by senior leaders to China via Nepal. A few years ago his daughter was arrested on charges of being a Maoist sympathiser. “My daughter was part of a student movement. But she became a Maoist in the eyes of the police. They harass me because of my past. Just imagine how we are being snooped on even after so many years,” he said.

Shanti Munda still tills her land at age 73. Fifty years ago, her husband, Keshab Sarkar, who was a confidant of Majumdar, organised fellow peasants to snatch land from landlords after a landlord, Iswar Tirkey, evicted his share-cropper. The share-cropper, Bighol Kishan, had asked for a bigger share of the farm produce.

Tirkey was an Air Force engineer turned Congress politician. His son Sunil is the Congress legislator from Phansidewa in Darjeeling. He denied that his father had tortured Bighol. He said after the peasants attacked his house, the Congress government in Delhi deployed the CRPF around the house. The senior Tirkey later became a minister in the Siddhartha Shankar Ray government in 1972.

While Tirkey was saved by his political clout, Nagen Roy Choudhury was not as fortunate. He was the first man to be executed by the Naxals. The order came from Kanu Sanyal. In April 1967, Choudhury fired at peasants who demanded a greater share of the produce. Later that evening, Jangal Santhal and his comrades rushed into the village and beheaded Choudhury. Shanti Munda said it was Santhal who did the beheading. “He was our execution specialist,” she said about the tribal leader who was 6ft 5inch tall.

Rattled by the murder, the landlords approached the government in Calcutta. The home minister in the United Front government of Ajoy Mukherjee was CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu. He ordered police action against the peasants, calling them terrorists.

35Sadananda Landlord Nagen Roy Choudhury’s grandson Sadananda (in pic) now shares a cordial relationship with Khudon Mallick, who helped Jangal Santhal kill his grandfather.

On May 24, Shanti led a group of women in Jhorjote to snatch land from a landlord. Local policemen led by inspector Sonam Wangdi countered them. Shanti was carrying her 15-day-old daughter on her back. “I saw inspector Wangdi kicking a pregnant woman on the stomach. I could not control my temper and told my friends to fire arrows at him. I started it myself and I continued firing until he died,” she said. The pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage the next day and died a few months later.

The next day Shanti led the women to Bengai-jote. The police, now in full force, also marched to the hamlet. It is said the police tried to disrupt the women’s meeting and the women tried to snatch police weapons. The police shot dead nine women, two children and a man.

“All of them died on the spot,” said Paban Singh, 70. One of them was his mother. Was it worth all those lives? He does not have any doubts. “Even today such a movement is necessary,” he said. “We treat Charu Majumdar as God. Had he been alive, this country would have been completely different. His annihilation policy is justified even today. Poor people have the right to take the lives of tyrants.” Paban became a Naxal after his mother’s death.

The Bengai-jote massacre changed the course of the Naxal movement. Kanu Sanyal, the man who steered the movement at the behest of Majumdar, declared that there would be no option other than liberating Naxalbari. The entire Naxalbari turned violent. Landlords were executed one by one and their land was snatched. “I was the only woman commander in our party then,” said Shanti. “Kanuda kept in touch with me through some agents. I stayed in Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. I came out during action and recruited other women.”

Today, Shanti says the Naxalbari movement was meaningless, as its gains were short-term and limited to a small geographical area. She knows that Maoists now control a large part of central India. “But our ideology was not just to liberate central India. We wanted to spread the fire across India so that no farmer would be tortured. But farmers remain as oppressed as they were 50 years ago,” she said.

36KhokonMajumdar Missionary zeal: Khokon Majumdar was part of the Naxal mission to China.

Shanti attributed the failure of the Naxal movement to the dilution of ideology. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which was founded by Majumdar in 1969, later did not have many true communists, she said. These men left the movement soon after Majumdar’s death and the arrests of Sanyal and Santhal. Shanti said Sanyal was the brain behind the Naxalbari movement. “Yes, Charu babu was our ideologue. But, for us Kanuda was the real hero of the Naxalbari movement. He went door to door and put together a big force against the landlords,” she said. Sanyal was the first to sense that the annihilation policy was going out of hand. He tried to make Majumdar change the approach. “We decided that beheading should not be allowed,” said Shanti. “Only people who attacked us were executed. But everything went out of our hands.”

She found nothing wrong in people’s court awarding death sentence, but admitted that murder of class enemies without trial was a mistake. It alienated the common man. “I have no doubt that Maoists today are making the same mistakes we made 50 years ago. Only people’s court should decide the fate of class enemies, not a section of leaders.”

Khudon Mallick, 75, of Buragunj-jote in Naxalbari said the annihilation policy was a mistake. Mallick was the son of a landlord. He became a Naxal after seeing a landlord forcing a tribal boy to drink the urine of his daughter as a punishment for falling in love with her. “Could you imagine that? I could not stay at home and decided that landlords should be eliminated from society,” he said.

Mallick travelled to China with Sanyal, Khokon Majumdar, Deepak Biswas and Sourin Bose and met chairman Mao Zedong. The gruelling journey through Nepal and Tibet took 20 days, and they reached Peking (now Beijing) on September 30, 1967. Mallick said they met Mao at his office on October 2. “Charu babu was yet to form the party. He wanted military help from Mao,” he said.

The meeting with Mao started on a lighter note: Chairman Mao said Mallick looked like a Chinese and should have been in his army. Mao told the delegation that the CPI(M) and the CPI were incapable of changing India and only the Naxalites could lead an armed revolution. “He asked us to create a mass organisation along with targeted armed revolution. He was clear that without a mass organisation, armed struggle would not succeed,” said Mallick.

Charu Majumdar, however, did not believe in it. He wanted to spread armed revolution quickly by raising hope in the minds of people. On March 7, 1967, before Naxalbari uprising, two opinions were presented at a district convention of the Naxals—Majumdar’s line was outright armed revolution through guerrilla war and annihilation; Sanyal’s line was to snatch land without killing people. Majumdar was not present in the meeting and his version was given by his lieutenants Deepak Biswas, Santi Pal and Manilal Singh. Sanyal remained silent and the meeting ended without any consensus.

“But, on returning from China, Kanu babu’s views were completely changed. He supported armed revolution,” said Mallick. The leaders were given arms training during their three-month stay in China. On their return, they were arrested for the killings of Sonam Wangdi and some landlords in Naxalbari. But when the second United Front government came to power in 1969, all of them were released. By then they had lost contact with Majumdar, who had gone underground after forming the CPI(ML). The policy of annihilation and armed revolution, however, had already spread to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

“We saw Bihar and Andhra Pradesh burning along with different parts of West Bengal. We were informed by the leaders that Charu wanted us to go for annihilation. We were left with no choice but to join the chorus,” said Mallick.

Khokon Majumdar, 80, who was in the mission to China, said the meeting with Mao was an uneasy one. A Bangladeshi Muslim, Khokon took a Bengali name after he crossed over to India. He worked in an Army hospital in Calcutta, and on being transferred to Siliguri, he met Charu Majumdar at a theatre and became a friend. “I was moved by the man’s courage and determination. He was so honest and he had vowed to change India,” said Khokon. He was the one who suggested the route to China.

35ShantiMunda Braveheart: Shanti Munda was the first woman Naxal commander.

“Charu babu had tried earlier to send a team. But they could not reach Beijing. We took the route via East Pakistan (Bangladesh). We knew that Pakistan had a good relationship with China. So we took Pakistan’s help to reach China,” he said.

The meeting with Mao lasted for more than an hour and the chairman gave them a letter for Charu. “The letter was given to Deepak as he only knew where Charu babu was hiding. I have no idea whether the letter was handed over to him or not,” he said. “I never considered Deepak a committed comrade.”

China clearly took an active part in the Naxal movement. “Chairman Mao told us that he would give all kind of support to Indian revolutionaries as he wanted India to become a true communist state,” said Khokon. “He deplored the official communist parties, saying they had deviated from communist principles.” Mao told them that he never considered India an enemy; instead, he wanted to see an egalitarian society in India.

Amiya Samanta, former director general (intelligence) of West Bengal Police, said China actively supported the Naxal movement. “But we felt it was not that easy to get Chinese arms supply those days. Charu Majumdar’s People’s Liberation Army did not exist at the end. But I must say his ideology had spread all over India like a forest fire,” he said.

The fire has been doused. Naxalbari today is a calm place. Nagen Roy Choudhury’s grandson Sadananda shares a cordial relationship with Mallick, who helped Jangal Santhal kill his grandfather. “We often exchange greetings,” said Sadananda, a trade union leader.

Though his house was attacked by the Naxals and his family property was seized by the government, Sunil Tirkey today supports the Naxal movement. “I must say the movement was for a great cause,” he said. “But I could never accept their torture and murderous theory. It was the reason behind the fall of such a great idea.”

It seems the Naxals could not cope with the failure of the movement. Jangal Santhal’s two wives—one is 93 and the other 64—live in penury. The first one does not even have a sweater to survive the winter. The second, whom Santhal married after his release from jail, said she fell in love with the Naxalbari hero who looked like a film star. He became an alcoholic and died like a beggar in 1981. Kanu Sanyal hanged himself in 2010.

So, what was the Naxalbari movement’s greatest contribution? Probably, the thought that Naxals would have delivered better justice. Azizul Haque, the first leader to be expelled from the CPI(M) for toeing the line of Charu Majumdar, recently went to Kamduni, where he met two women who fought for punishment for people who raped and killed their friend. After a court punished the culprits, the women were ostracised. “I found that they were denied even the ration,” said Haque. “I missed Charu da. Had he been alive, he would have taught them a lesson.”

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