RABI DASH is a soft-spoken man who earns his living the hard way. The 79-year-old Gandhian tills his land, and runs an organisation that trains villagers to spin and sell khadi. The dhoti- and kurta-clad Dash, who lives in Tarapur village in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district, gives no hint that he was one of the founding members of the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the ultra-left outfit that was formed two years after the Naxalbari uprising in 1967. “The principle of nonviolence propagated by Mahatma Gandhi is better suited to solve India’s problems than the violent ways of Maoists,” he says.
He gave up on the CPI(ML) long ago, but says that the issues that gave rise to the armed uprising have still not been addressed. “Unless the basic problems are solved, the occasional flare-ups of Maoist violence will be there, in spite of strong police measures,” says Dash.
Born into a Brahmin family, Dash was influenced in his childhood by his tutor, Kanduri Kar, who had worked for land-rights for dalits and their entry into the famous Sarala temple. Later Dash went to Tendakuda High School, across the Mahanadi, where he did matriculation. He then joined BJB College in the new capital city of Bhubaneswar.
While in Bhubaneswar, Dash regularly visited the library of the Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology. There he met the well-known Scottish mathematical biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who was doing research at the university. Haldane persuaded Dash to translate the book What is Relativity? by Nobel laureate Lev Landau and G.B. Rumer into Odia. Dash wrote a few books on science as well. Interestingly, these books once came to his rescue. “When I was on trial for Naxal activities, the judge figured out that I wrote those science books. He said it would be incorrect to give capital punishment to a person who wrote books to popularise science, even though my crime demanded it. He gave me life imprisonment. Of course, the Supreme Court later acquitted me,” says Dash.
Dash recently completed writing a book on Haldane, and he wants Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to write the preface. It was Naveen’s father, former chief minister Biju Patnaik, who had brought Haldane to Bhubaneswar.
During his college days, Dash was associated with the Communist Party and was friends with Jyoti Basu. In 1967, Basu became deputy chief minister in Ajoy Mukherjee’s United Front government in West Bengal. Landowners who had given their land to sharecroppers for cultivation feared that the communist parties in the coalition government would push for land reforms. So they started evicting sharecroppers, who were landless and without any other source of income. In Prasadjoth village, which was under the Naxalbari police station in Siliguri subdivision, some sharecroppers and labourers forcibly ploughed a plot. The landowners called the police to stop them. The police opened fire at the occupiers, killing 14, including a few women and children. Basu, who was in charge of the home ministry, supported the police action.
While the CPI(M)’s national leaders supported Basu, the party members in north Bengal were shocked by the incident. “In Odisha, I condemned the actions of the West Bengal government,” Dash says. “I was thrown out of the party. Some other leaders and members who took the same stand were also expelled.” Dash soon went to Calcutta and met party leader Susital Roy Choudhury. They travelled to Siliguri to meet the communist revolutionary Charu Majumdar. “He was a frail man suffering from acute asthma, and was sleeping in a huge cot,” says Dash. “I asked Roy Choudhury if such a sick person could lead an ultra-leftist movement. He said Majumdar was capable.”
Soon they started working on an alternative to the mainstream communist parties. A rally was organised in Calcutta. “After the rally, the leaders met, and a new party was formed—Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist),” says Dash. Majumdar was the general secretary.
“All members of the first 14-member central committee, except Tejeswar Rao and I, are dead,” says Dash. “Most of them were brutally killed by the police.” Dash was arrested in 1971, and spent a few years in different jails in Odisha. He came out in 1977, when the Janata Party came to power.
Dash believes that the Naxal movement forced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to take pro-poor measures. “When I met her in 1980, she told me that the Naxal movement had opened her eyes,” he says. In his opinion, the present-day Maoists are misdirected and the violence they propagate is unjustified. “In our first meeting when the CPI(ML) was formed, there was no decision to kill anybody. Unjustified bloodshed and murder are products of feudalism,” he says. The ideological movement of Naxalism, anyway, has lost its way long back. “There was a split in the original movement. Though I tried for unity I failed,” he says.
When the Naxal movement moved away from its core principles, Dash tried to take up some issues on his own. Thirty years ago, he moved to the drought-ravaged Kalahandi district in western Odisha. It was at that time that Maniben Nanavati, who was an associate of Mahatma Gandhi, figured out that the black soil of Kalahandi was suitable for growing cotton. She raised some money and gave it to Dash for cotton cultivation. “We trained local people to spin and they produced khadi cloth,” says Dash, sitting at a sales counter in Ekamra Haat in Bhubaneswar, which he started 20 years ago.
Dash says the Gandhian approach is the best way to solve India’s problems. “That was why I took to khadi,” he says. “In India, joblessness is the main issue. That can be solved by the Gandhian model. Cotton gives more money to farmers. It will give jobs through spinning and weaving. Cotton seed will give oil. If you compare the violent ways of Maoists with the nonviolence propagated by Gandhi, you know what is better.”