Past Continuous: How an Uprising in Naxalbari Shaped Modern India’s Rebellion Against the State

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

Fifty years after Naxalbari, the focus has shifted from reasons that led to the uprising to mindless barricading of debate and ruthless violence from both sides. Credit: cpiml.org

Way back in 1981, or maybe it was the year after that, when it was beyond the pale of imagination of most that the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) could be held anywhere else but in Delhi and that too in January, a friend and I cajoled each other to take inverted snobbery one notch higher. Besides odd foreign films like Zoltan Fabri’s Balint Fabian Meets God, we decided that before watching global cinema, we must see our own cinematic heritage. For me, this fortuitous whim shaped the formation of my social and political consciousness significantly. Luckily, it was the year for a Mrinal Sen retrospective in the Indian Panorama section and the Mavlankar Hall became our home from morning till late evening for several days.

A couple of days into the retrospective, we emerged from the auditorium into the foyer to take a break before the next film. In a corner, we saw the legend puffing away to glory and in a trice, an unspoken pact reached, we crossed over and introduced ourselves. Not that there was much by way of introduction, save that we were students from the university that is now the symbol of anti-nationalism for sarkari patriots. We spoke about his films and our views. At some point the conversation continued over a cup of tea picked up from the canteen counter. He told us he dropped in because he wanted to see Chorus – the last of his political or Calcutta trilogy – a confession that intrigued us because we never imagined a filmmaker would like another look at a film he made almost a decade ago.

The conversation was reaching an end, the next film was due in minutes and he had to return to the main venue for an interaction. Spontaneously, we asked – and he agreed – for an interview without having any clue what we would do with it. Forget considering a career in journalism, the university’s informal film society, of which I was part, did not even have a newsletter. He agreed, and asked us to join him in his hotel the next morning, adding that we could have breakfast with him. When he saw us hesitate, he laughed and said it would do no harm if the government paid for the breakfast of two avid filmgoers.

The rest of the story is not relevant to the matter I am leading to. It would suffice to mention that it was my first shot at transcribing an interview, typing with a single finger on one of the typewriters provided to students in a remote corner of the library and that it yielded my first byline, jointly with the friend. After the almost hour-long interview and a sumptuous breakfast in his hotel room, when we were about to leave, Sen asked me a question which stayed and guided me in selecting aspects of history that I would henceforth read.

He asked me in Bengali whether my hometown was in West Bengal and if so, where. To my informing him that I grew up in Uttar Pradesh, he advised that if I was short on Bengal’s history, I must read up sufficiently about three major tragic episodes in 20th century Bengal – its partition, starting with the first attempt in 1905, backtracked a few years later and the eventual breakup of the sub-continent; the famine of 1943 and turbulent Bengal of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “If you understand the trauma of these chapters of history, you will understand Bengal and the psyche of its people better,” and turning to my friend, Sen added: “even for you, these three events are a must to understand because of the deep resonance on national politics and society.”

For a lad just out of his teen years, the advice was godsend and I unabashedly followed it for I concluded that a reading list based on his selection of topics would enable me to gain better insight into India’s trials and tribulation in the 20th century. Come to think of it, the three tragic episodes contain much of modern Indian history and its tragedies over the past century. Almost three-and-a-half decades after Sen’s counsel, I can claim some awareness about the making of modern India and the national consciousness besides better insight into my sub-national heritage.

Over the past several weeks, many have recalled the tumultuous events 50 years ago in the hitherto unknown village in north Bengal, Naxalbari, which shaped India’s greatest and continuing war within. It all began with a small group of farmers mustering up courage to say no. They said no to food not being available, they said no to tilling lands over which they had no ownership rights, they said no to being bonded for life, they said no to having no right over how to lead their lives and what to do with their bodies.

Those who stood up in protest that fateful day in May 1967 had no clue that they had set in motion a process which would continue till date. They were not aware that walking the fields of the village with bows and arrows would give birth to an ‘ism’ – Naxalism – which despite lacking a clear definition would over time become what former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared as the biggest threat to India’s internal security. The peasants in that little village in West Bengal were unaware that their spontaneous idea of protest would eventually acquire such grave dimensions and be regarded as acts of treason by national governments. The villagers were not even aware that in time generations of rebels would rise, some rightly and others wrongly, a few using legitimate means while others choosing illegitimate tactics to shake the system.

This summer I was once again reminded of a photograph of a young man in the living room of an aunt’s house we visited during my vacations to Kolkata and its suburbs. Try as much as I did initially, no one told me who he was except saying “O chole gaiche (He has gone away)”. I noticed, however, that the line was never used by my aunt, but by her husband, her sons – my much older cousins. Years later, I fathomed the full story: my cousin was one of the thousands of youth who bartered life for their belief, who fought a battle that was not theirs, someone who believed that if one did not stand up for others, there would be no one to defend him when his turn came, someone whose corpse became one of the thousands of medallions for a regime headed by Siddhartha Shankar Ray with assistance from the city police commissioner, Ranjit Gupta, and an army officer who retired much-decorated and as lieutenant general, J.F.R. Jacob. My cousin, who I never met, and with whose family I have no way to reconnect now, was just another of those who became the subjects of Ray’s bravado: “Jake and I, we broke the Naxals.” My aunt would have never met Mahashweta Devi, but I am sure she would have known of thousands of such women who were alone in their grief.

Fifty years after Naxalbari and the advent of a political process that is now tackled by a separate section in the home ministry, the Left Wing Extremism Division, the focus has shifted from reasons that led to the uprising to mindless barricading of debate and ruthless violence from both sides. The emphasis is on figures and not on explanations, no one seeks to provide an explanation for perfectly sane academics with a fabulous career beckoning them, to put such endeavour on the back seat and trudge deep into jungles to understand why people are angry and why they are willing to rebel in wave after wave. Both rebels and the state ceaselessly add to their list of martyrs and the adage “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” comes to haunt contemporary India. The only difference being that the freedom or azaadi, routinely demonised by the state and its loyalists, is not of the territorial variety but of the kind so poignantly described by Kanhaiya Kumar in his speech after release from jail.

The 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari uprising, which spawned what is jocularly described as the only Chinese product that is purely made in India, should not be an occasion to romanticise the extreme form the communist movement in India took. Ironically, the Maoists are only so in name, for they were never accepted as his own by the chairman till his death in 1976. This anniversary is an occasion for us to decipher why men like Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal became demigods of an entire generation of youth. And why the underground leaders continue to be supported by the people. The anniversary has to be an occasion to understand the spirit of rebellion and not get embroiled in a polemical debate over the trajectory of extreme left-wing politics since April 1969 when the CPI (ML) was launched on the birth anniversary of Vladimir Lenin. The anniversary is also no occasion to theorise why extreme left-wing politics imploded into hundreds of groups and which of those active with the ‘ML’ tag have any remote similarity with the spirit of 1967.

What goes around in the name of Naxalism is a perverse interpretation of the initial tactic. But it is important to understand why people turn to the romantic idea of challenging and striking at the state. People backed it 50 years ago and do so now. Unless the government understands what motivates people far removed from the humdrum of politics, it will always have a battle on hand.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.

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