The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.
Fifty years later, we look back at those times and evoke some of that mood. In a series of articles, leading writers recall and analyse key events and processes that left their mark on a young, struggling but hopeful nation.
On August 8, 1969, I was thrilled as I entered the portals of modern India’s oldest college and the fountainhead of the great Indian awakening, Presidency College, Calcutta. A bright red flag fluttered atop the college from the pole that had hosted the national flag. Handwritten posters were plastered all over the walls, proclaiming the arrival of the Indian revolution. There were also bold stencil portraits of Chairman Mao on the college walls though the most oversized, overawing one was in the canteen. And scrawled in bold thick black letters, both inside the college and outside, were definitive slogans, like “China’s Chairman is our Chairman” and “When Order stands for Injustice, Disorder is the Beginning of Justice”.
As I trudged up the solemn, iconic main staircase, I was reminded of the fracas that Subhas Chandra Bose had with a white racist teacher on these very stairs, for which he was expelled. Loud sounds came from somewhere near, and all of a sudden, a group of agitating students appeared at the head of the stairs. I had to stop for them to march down the stairs, shouting slogans condemning American imperialism, rather menacingly. I stepped aside nimbly as they brushed past me, and though this first brush with Naxalites was not so spectacular, the others over the next three years were associated with palpable pain.
But let us step back a bit to get the picture better. I remember quite distinctly the public euphoria in early 1967, when the first left-dominated United Front (UF) coalition came to power in West Bengal, dislodging the stodgy old Congress. Street lamps were wrapped in crimson cellophane and their red glow matched the sea of red flags, banners, posters and festoons that flapped in the joyous air. Then, all of a sudden, in May that year, armed tribals rose in revolt and killed landlords and policemen in broad daylight somewhere near Siliguri. It took a while to understand that this was an act of an extreme left group of communists, and not by the left government itself — which was actually embarrassed by it. But soon, these villages where the peasants’ movement had erupted, Naxalbari, Kharibari and Phansidewa, became widely known, as did the leaders of the insurrection, Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal.
This signalled the entry of political killings in Bengal, that continues as a part of its tradition, as the left-led UF government could hardly control either the extremists or the ‘bourgeois backlash’. This government was dismissed by the governor soon enough, but left extremists, who came to be known as Naxals in Bengali and Naxalites in English, had emerged as a force to reckon with. College Street and its neighbourhood, that housed Calcutta University and almost a dozen other colleges, were always on the boil, as bands of belligerent students went around establishing the long-delayed Indian revolution. A few months before we joined college, the UF government was re-elected, but it still floundered in tackling Naxalites, many of whom were their own ex-comrades. It also had to face immense pressure from an almighty Central government, steered by Indira Gandhi and personified by the West Bengal-based Siddhartha Shankar Ray.
In April 1969, this second UF government released top Naxalite leaders from jail, as a gesture of goodwill. This backfired and all the disparate extreme left groups soon grouped together to form a new party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist). This CPI(ML) became the sworn enemy of its own earlier parent party, the CPI(M). Kolkata started witnessing regular bloody street battles between the ruling Marxists and their breakaway extremists, the Naxalites. No one was ever sure where bombs would be thrown next and who would die or be injured as ‘collateral damage’.
It was not just Kolkata or red pockets in rural Bengal that had taken up the bomb and the gun: the whole world appeared to be in turmoil. The ghost of Che Guevara tormented dictators in Latin America, while Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution shook all of China. In the west, several thousand students marched hand-in-hand along Paris’s Champs Élysées, fuming against an imperious French president, Charles de Gaulle. In August 1969, the Woodstock Music Festival took place in the US, shattering all hitherto-upheld norms, and the Beatles were also at their height in Britain — screaming out the anguish of the youth.
In Presidency College, the Charu Mazumdar line was clear: “Chairman Mao will lead the way and armed struggle is the only alternative.” One day, I came across a bunch of students in the canteen, passing Mao’s Red Book around with utter religiosity, but I was deprived of the chance to hold it, as I was not one of them. To them, the Bengali and Hindi services of Radio Peking were the last word, as news in India was the ‘propaganda’ of the feudal-bourgeois state. During classes, we would often hear deafening slogans just outside, ‘Amaar Naam Tomaar Naam: Vietnam, Vietnam’, rising in a crescendo. Teachers would often have to wait, some quite impatiently, as the sloganeers usually took their own time and would occasionally start giving speeches.
It is a fact that some good students from the best colleges did join the movement and went ‘underground’, but the number was really not that large. In fact, more radicals were actually produced by the not-so-privileged colleges in the suburbs and in the districts, where the ‘class war’ was really more authentic. Where Presidency College was concerned, an umbilical link was established with certain villages in the Debra and Gopiballavpur areas of Midnapore district. After all, Chairman Mao had mandated that the revolution would be led by villages that would encircle the cities and throttle imperialist and repressive forces there. Chatting in the main building, one heard, for instance, that one of our students had quit studies to work in the villages of Debra. Someone told us, quite authoritatively, that a former student of physics was now leading the peasants’ movement in a difficult pocket in the Santhal Parganas. We also heard about some comrades who had returned to the city temporarily to ‘take shelter’ in the campus, in the outhouses or abandoned inner recesses of the buildings. Any unnecessary curiosity about such matters was dealt with quite harshly. Classes were stopped by the revolution, at sweet will.
Though some of our group were considered too vocal and were threatened or hammered at periodic intervals, we were too young and stubborn to become wise. We could not remain quiet when Vidyasagar’s statue was decapitated in College Square. But what could not be destroyed by Mao’s children was the spirit of inquiry and questioning of Presidency College. Students continued to argue as furiously as they did during the preceding one and a half centuries, seated in the same historic ‘arcades’ and under classical arches of the main ‘heritage’ building. Addas in the ‘portico’ enriched us more than the syllabus, as did peer group exchanges of world-views — that were still being formed in our minds. We pursued preposterous postulates over cups of reasonably-priced lukewarm canteen tea, along with something that resembled toasted bread and omelette. When resources could be garnered, these arguments would be carried over to the neighbourhood Coffee House, over more expensive coffee and decent snacks.
Bunking classes was a sacred tradition, and as soon as we had a couple of weeks of ‘normal classes’, bunking began. Grace cinema was our nearest movie hall, but we had to muster a few coins first, without touching our return bus fares. A few reckless students defied the unofficial ban by the Naxalites and did compete in inter-college and University debates and quiz contests. Though we won laurels and prizes for our college, there was hardly anyone to share the joy, as these had been branded as ‘bourgeois distractions’. Sports and other activities were also not greatly encouraged, though intolerance here was less sharp.
By the middle of 1970, urban revolutionaries were getting more restless and started snatching arms from policemen and started devising more ingenious forms of annihilation of class enemies. It was common those days for men to wrap a shawl over the upper part of the body, as Bengalis are traditionally scared of the cold. Naxalites started carrying crude pipe-guns or a spring-knifes under their shawls, and fired at close range when walking past unsuspecting policemen, or dug their knives deep into them. When nearby policemen picked up their heavy antiquated rifles and gave chase, the fleeing Naxalite would lead them into narrow lanes quite common in this old part of the city. Once the posse entered, they would either be lost or be ambushed.
Bhabani Dutta Lane, that skirted the northern boundary of Presidency College, was one such mukta-anchal (liberated zone) and even the police dreaded entering it without adequate protection. This lane often supplied unadulterated anti-socials to our college’s revolution, to carry out unpleasant tasks like smashing up college property and beating up dissenters. They often used the college building, especially the road-facing windows and balconies, to hurl bombs on passing police vehicles or to shoot at the police outside. The latter were prohibited by standing orders from entering educational campuses in hot pursuit. College Street was never quiet, and one of the lasting smells we remember is that of pungent ‘tear gas’ that wafted into our classrooms as police frequently fired these shells outside.
Life continued to be tough and classes became rather irregular. A police firing in Gopiballabhpur in distant Midnapore or one in nearby Kailash Bose Street, in which one of the comrades had been shot, meant that the Naxalites would surely close down the college. This is when several teachers came forward to teach students at their homes, even though these were quite small. I remember how one of our dear professors cramped us all into his tiny verandah (thank god, some ‘bunked’ even these classes, or they would not fit in) and completed several lessons there.
In late 1969, the second United Front government had also been dismissed and Governor’s rule re-imposed. The law and order situation, however, worsened but in the college campus, Naxalites continued to rule without challenge. Elections were not held. They controlled everything and the authorities were keen to avoid clashes and violence. The pro-China Naxalites of our years were stuck in their narrow interpretations and not open to debates or discussions, that had earlier been the hallmark of the earlier generation of brilliant students who had preached radical and revolutionary Marxism.
In the 1969 to 1971 period, Naxalite students simply scorned all other shades of left belief, such as ours, and branded them without reasoning as decadent and revisionist. Those students who were reckless enough to stand up to them were heckled and often thrashed on some pretext or the other. They claimed they had enough problems with state power that had, incidentally, started hardening its position under Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s ‘proxy government’. With no elected government in power, S.S. Ray ran the whole show as ‘advisor’ to the Governor and introduced quite ruthless methods to crush left extremism. Police reprisals were carried out systematically and even those of us who were often opposed to the Naxalites were aghast at the sheer brutality.
In September 1970, after a particularly blood-stained assault by the police somewhere in Bengal, Naxalite students in our college decided to let loose violence within the campus. Some of us were called out of classrooms and beaten up rather seriously. Some assailants were fellow students but those who were particularly rough were goons from the neighbourhood. Four of us sustained pretty serious injuries and we had be rushed to the hospital by some girls, as most boys had run for cover. These Samaritans had been looking on with horror and were waiting for the mayhem to end.
S.S. Ray’s government found this as the perfect occasion to withdraw the long-standing order prohibiting policemen from entering educational institutions. For the first time, armed policemen marched into our campus and set up fortified positions. This changed the scenario quite drastically and though classes became more regular, no student could really tolerate rifles and bayonets poking at them.
But then, Naxalite violence elsewhere showed little sign of abating. In December 1970, some students of Jadavpur University murdered their Vice Chancellor in cold blood. I was really disgusted to know that two of my classmates from our rather privileged school had either committed this dastardly act or had a hand in it. Their prosperous fathers whisked them off immediately and sent them abroad.
By 1971, killings started coming closer to us as barbaric activities by both desperate Naxalites and a belligerent, vindictive police kept on escalating. We were told, in hushed whispers, how the elder brother of one student had been shot dead by the police last night near his home in the dreaded ‘red zone’ of Chanditala in Kolkata, but not before he could lob at least two bombs at their raiding vehicle. So, most students scampered back home before sunset, as an undeclared curfew enveloped the city. In many areas, families kept praying for their members to reach home safely, and once they did, they bolted the doors and windows quite tight. Even lights were all switched off in the contested zones, as gunshots rang through the uneasy night and sounds of bombs shattered the darkness.
We heard in the daytime stories of what happened the night before — of how boys, many quite innocent, were dragged out of their homes before terror-stricken families. They were then subjected to third degree torture by incensed policemen, either on mere suspicion or to extract information about Naxalites. Some of these victims lost their senses or became total nervous wrecks. On the other hand, poor defenceless police constables were hacked to death by Naxalites, just to score their point. The biggest casualty of this darkest phase was the swinging night life of Calcutta, that had been made so famous by its crooners and musical bands on Park Street and Chowringhee. The cheeky, raucous evenings and bold cabarets were finished, for all time.
But what happened in the autumn of 1971 has hardly been discussed in the public domain. Through that year, the military crackdown in East Pakistan and the genocide and mass-scale rapes there had infuriated people in West Bengal. People demanded a response and the sight of the army moving in large numbers through the city was a comforting indication that we were preparing to take on East Pakistan. We had no idea that S.S. Ray’s government had decided to use some army regiments to assist civil police in ‘exterminating the Naxalite menace’. As General JFR Jacob of the Eastern Command confessed later on, sections of the army joined hands with the local police to hunt down Naxalites — in what was branded as Operation Steeple Chase.
In Kolkata, the extremists were cornered and holed up in their last ‘red bastions’ like Baranagar and Chanditala. The commandos and armed police cordoned off entire areas with the help of antisocials, many of whom would become Congress leaders later on. The extremists were then shot in cold blood, often tied to lampposts, or at their very own doorsteps. Some were arrested and taken in police vans and many never seen ever again. Stories were rife of how these police vans stopped in the middle of nowhere, late in the night. The police opened the doors of the vans, freed the arrested Naxalites and told them to run away. But as soon as they did so, they were shot dead in the back. The official story was that they were escaping from police custody.
Films like Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 and Padatik (The Guerrilla Fighter) brought out the horror of this period, while Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta trilogy: Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) dealt with the same frustrations of the young during the Naxalite period, 1970 to 1973, the hopelessness, unemployment and the debasement of morals. Mrinal Sen’s Ek Adhuri Kahani (An Unfinished Story) and Chorus also dwelt with this unforgettably painful era, as did many others later on like Hazar Chaurasi ki Maa (The Mother of Prisoner no 1084).
— NFAI (@NFAIOfficial) February 25, 2019
The flames were eventually doused in Kolkata and an entire generation of young men and women had to suffered their different traumas. I remember bumping into my classmate from school one day and he looked very, very disturbed. I had no idea that he had turned to extremism and so asked him what was wrong. He did not reply — but it was clear that he was on the run. A few weeks later, newspapers mentioned that there had been an attempted jailbreak and a few ‘desperadoes’ were shot dead by the authorities. He was one of them, and when the news was finally confirmed, I was wracked by pain, fury, frustration and a sense of letdown. He was too young to die. As were many others.
That conflagration of Kolkata and Bengal was soon stomped out, but the embers that flew from here lit up other ‘prairie fires’ — in different parts of India’s interior. And, many of these never really came to an end.