Fifty Years On, Naxalbari Veteran Shanti Munda is Still At War With Injustice

"In those days, exploitation used to take place right in front of our eyes. We knew who the exploiters were. That is not the case now. Our exploiters are too many: the government, officials, powerful companies, real estate dealers."

“In those days, exploitation used to take place right in front of our eyes. We knew who the exploiters were. That is not the case now. Our exploiters are too many: the government, officials, powerful companies, real estate dealers.”

Shanti Munda. Credit: M. Suchitra

Shanti Munda, with a photograph of Kanu Sanyal prominently displayed behind her. Credit: Suchitra M.

In the third of her series of interviews on the 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari uprising, the author speaks to Shanti Munda, one of the original participants in the armed clashes that took place with the police in West Bengal in 1967, and a close associate of the legendary Naxalite leader Kanu Sanyal.

“I pushed open the window and peeped in. Kanu dada is not there on his bed. Where is he? The rope line on which he used to hang his soiled shirt and dhoti is also missing. And then I saw dada hanging from the ceiling on the rope. I screamed.”

Shanti Munda fell into a deep silence for quite some time. She was speaking about the biggest tragedy of her 75-year long, conflict-ridden, action-packed life – the suicide of her leader, Kanu Sanyal. She was reliving the same intense pain she experienced when she saw Sanyal’s body hanging with the noose tight around his neck, legs almost touching the floor on March 23, 2010. The wrinkles on her dry, honey-coloured skin suddenly deepened. The sparkle in her sunken eyes dimmed in the cloud of tears.

Shanti Munda lives in the adivasi village of Subdellajote in Hatighisa gram panchayat in the Naxalbari block of Darjeeling district in West Bengal. She was there in the forefront of the armed struggle that had taken place in the villages of Naxalbari half a century ago. She was 25, a daredevil and leader of women – totally immersed in party work along with leaders such as Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Jangal Santhal and Keshav Sarkar. She barely escaped getting killed on May 25, 1967 at Naxalbari when eight women, two children and a man were shot by the police. Shanti Munda was present in the incident the previous day which had ended in the killing of a police officer. She is now in the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) faction founded by Kanu Sanyal in 2003. Keshav Sarkar was her life partner.

Maybe because she has described the old stories to the media so many times in the past, Shanti is not very enthusiastic in repeating it. She may also be feeling there’s no use of it. “Adivasis are victims of massive exploitation,” she says.

The single-room thatched house in which Kanu Sanyal lived, which is the party’s office now, was next to Shanti Munda’s house. She opened the room, which is adorned with photos of Sanyal and communist ideologues.

This is what she said if some order is brought into her scattered words:

“We did not have any land. We were either wage labourers in tea plantations or share croppers of jotedars (landlords). In fact, the Naxalbari struggles began first in connection with tea plantations. Tea plantation owners had acres and acres of land even after the government passed a legislation in 1954 putting a land ceiling of 25 acres. The estate owners never bothered about this law. We demanded that the excess land with them should be seized and distributed among the landless. The situation of the share croppers was also extremely pathetic. Jotedars would provide land, bullock, seed and fertilisers. We would provide the labour. Half of the produce goes to the jotedar. If there were weddings or some other celebrations or functions in their houses, we had to contribute a share. We had to pay tax for everything, even for the maintenance of their horses and elephants. To put it briefly, when the harvest was over, their granaries would be full, and we would starve. To pull on, we had to borrow money at a very high interest rate. Since we would never be able to pay this back, we were forced to continue working for them forever. Everyone in the family, including children would work. Some used to run away, unable to bear the torture. But the goons of the landlords would trace them out and bring them back. They would be beaten severely and made to work again.

Also read: Jayakka and the Story of the Women Rebels of Srikakulam

“We were living in absolute misery, unable to resist and putting up with all kind of exploitations, when Kanu Dada came along. He was only 23 then. He was a very sincere and dedicated communist and an active worker of the Kisan Sabha. He kept on telling us that that you have to organise and only then can you resist exploitation and change your life. Since we would be working throughout the day and became too exhausted for any political engagement by the end, dada chose the weekly market days to meet and talk to us. He would hold a meeting right there at the market and explain things in the light of a kerosene lamp. Keshav Sarkar also would be there along with him. Gradually we began to feel that what they were telling us was right. We also started feeling that we have to organise and become strong. It was from these weekly markets that Jangal Santhal joined the Kisan Sabha and led the struggle later on.

“Even though I was only a little girl, I used to go for every rally. It used to be great fun singing and dancing. Sometimes, the rally would be held from the morning till the evening. I learnt politics from these rallies.

“Things began to change gradually. We found the courage to resist. It took years for that. We started seizing what was ours by right. We entered the fields of the landlords and harvested the produce. We seized rice and paddy from the landlords and distributed it among the poor peasants. We held public trials of the jotedars who harassed us. The goons of the landlords and the police tried to suppress the struggle. When the Communist Party split in 1964, we went over to CPI(M) along with our leaders.

Naxalbari. Credit: M. Suchitra

Naxalbari railway station. Credit: Suchitra M.

“The fight continued. Things boiled over by March 1967. The Kisan Sabha asked us to intensify the struggle. We entered the field with bows and arrows, spears and sickles. An incident took place during that time. Nagen Roy Chaudhury, a landlord, shot at a sharecropper who had entered his field for harvesting. Workers caught hold of him, tied him up and brought him to a public place. A public trial was held. We wanted him to admit his guilt and also undertake not to repeat such things. He not only refused to admit his guilt, but also dared to declare that he would shoot to kill if such a contingency arose in future. Everyone flared up. The workers of Kisan Sabha finished him off there and then. Many such incidents happened in March, April and May of 1967. There had been constant confrontations between Kisan Sabha workers and landlords.

“Police suppression was at its peak. They would hunt for us. Then we started barricading all the routes into the villages to prevent the police entering the village. We were in constant vigil. The women had undertaken the task of sentry duty. Bows and arrows were our weapons. More than hundred women were given training to shoot arrows. Adivasi women might not talk loudly and assertively in a meeting, but they had the courage to confront the police.

“On May 24, someone informed the police that Kanu-da was in the neighbouring village. A troupe of policemen under inspector Sonam Wangdi rushed there. However, that was false information. Kanu-da was not present.

“The news that the police had arrived spread like wild fire. We all rushed to that village. Comrades, both men and women, from all nearby villages assembled. All of them had bows and arrows. Many women were carrying babies on their backs. My six-month old baby was bundled to my back in a piece of cloth. We surrounded the village from all sides. The police was not given an inch of space to escape. They pleaded with us to spare them when they realised that they were trapped. But we were at the receiving end of their cruelties for the past few months. No one had any pity for them. We continued to shoot arrows. An arrow struck Wangdi in the melee. He died on the spot.

“An inspector had died in our attack. Would the police and the government just grin and bear it? They brought more policemen from Siliguri which is only about 20 kilometres from here. Their strength made them more atrocious. It’s difficult to describe what all they did afterwards. They burnt huts, made a bonfire of rice and paddy, caught and tortured all those who came into their sight. Women’s clothes were torn and they were harassed. Even children were not spared.

“We knew that the police will seek revenge and raid other villages too. So we too mobilised as many as we could and deployed vigilant groups in all routes that led to Naxalbari. Since most of the men had gone hiding, it was the women who led these groups.

“Police firing took place the next morning in a village called Prasadujote. It is not too far from the Naxalbari market. About two hundred women had assembled there. Most of them were carrying babies. We were carrying bows and arrows. A few men were also with us. While we were guarding, a police jeep passed by and we surrounded the jeep. Some of us tried to seize guns from the policemen. They were frightened seeing so many women with bows and arrows so they said that they had come just to see what we were doing. They also said they won’t hurt us in any manner. They pleaded that we let them go and we did. But after going some distance, the officer shouted orders to fire. Eight women were killed on the spot. Two babies and one male comrade too were killed.

“This ghastly incident boiled our blood. We had shown mercy to them by letting them leave unharmed. But it was downright gruesome on their part to shoot at us. We did not care for anything anymore. What followed was war for days together. All of us had to seek hideouts. I was underground for five years.

Shanti Munda with village children. Credit: Suchitra M.

“Meanwhile, all our leaders were expelled from the CPI(M). When the CPI(ML) was formed, all of us comrades here joined the new party.

“Charu Babu (Mazumdar) was our supreme leader. But we were more close to Kanu-da because he was living among us. I always followed his line of politics. He was a person who lived for us. He lived in this village till his death.

“I have no idea why he did what he did. He was very lonely in his last days. He had a stroke and couldn’t walk or talk properly. He could not take part in meetings or in other activities. For an individual like him who had not spared a moment and was totally involved in political activities throughout his life, for a person whose mind was still young, for one who felt that he had a lot more to do, he could not have withstood his present condition.

“Friends and comrades used to visit him. My daughter and I were looking after him. We prepared food for him, gave him hot water baths, washed his clothes, kept his room clean. The doctor had advised him to walk for some time as an exercise and I would accompany him during his daily walk.

“That day too he had his lunch as usual. But unlike other days, he washed his plate after the meal. Then he stumbled back to his room without saying anything. What has happened to dada today, washing the plate and not uttering a single word… I wondered.

“Some sort of fear started growing in me. I grew restless for no reason. Dada must be having a nap, but I wanted to go and check. I went to his hut. The door was closed from inside. I opened the window. And there he was – dangling from the loop of the rope. I screamed and people came rushing.

“Many people have asked me whether he had frustrations of any kind. Was he bothered by the thought that Naxalism has no future, people have asked me. I had never felt that he had any such anguish. He had tried to bring together the splinter groups and had succeeded to a certain extent. He initiated many formulations, and lastly the CPI(ML). I was there with him throughout. He was not a spokesman of annihilation. He believed that the movement should have a deep foundation among the people. He went to Nandigram when there was firing. Our party worked quite effectively there. The party was intervening in many issues, likewise.

“After Naxalbari, arrest and imprisonment, he returned to the same village after nine years. He did not go anywhere else and lived in our hut. My husband (Keshav Sarkar), the kids and I would sleep  in the other end of the room and dada would sleep close to the door. We used to sleep on jute sacks and the roof would be leaking during rains.

“He could have lived in the city if he wanted to. His sister had asked him to do so. He lived with her for a few days for treatment when he had the stroke. Then he rushed back here.

“I have not been able to bear his death. A leader of the stature of Kanu-da should never have done such a thing.

Also read: In Srikakulam, A Mother Relives Choices She Made 50 Years Ago – To Pick up a Gun, To Give up a Baby

“What is the point in narrating old stories? The state of us adivasis is still as worse as it always was. Even now we survive on what we earn as wage labourers. Most of the adivasis sold the land they got in the aftermath of the uprising. We neither had any money nor any facilities to cultivate the land. Rich people from Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and other places come here and buy land from adivasis. There are so many middlemen here now.

“So much has changed in the last 50 years. In those days, the exploitation used to take place right in front of our eyes. We knew who the exploiters were. We had to fight only them. But that is not the case now. Our exploiters are just too many: the government, officials, powerful companies, real estate dealers – direct as well as indirect exploitation. We have no idea, how to confront them.

Shanti Munda outside the CPI(ML) party office in her village. Credit: Suchitra M.

“Life, livelihood and survival are all issues now. Do you know how many have given up their land to the tea plantations? Young people are migrating to distant cities for employment from all the villages of Naxalbari to Delhi, Haryana, Kolkata, Punjab. Not men alone, women too. Some of them will have some money when they return. But many of them return with empty pockets.  Wherever they may go, adivasis are exploited. Even standard wages are not paid. Sometime ago eight young people from our village were jailed in Punjab. They were accused of theft. In fact they had not stolen anything. They just asked for the wages for their one year of work. Then the employer made a false complaint and got them arrested by the police. They came back here walking all the way.

“A party comes into power giving so many promises but then it forgets all of them. The next time, another party comes to power and does the same thing. The MPs and MLAs representing us keep on changing, but the system does not change. There is a madman here. Recently, he killed two persons. He had a petty shop. The shop was his only livelihood. Then it was overhauled by the authorities for widening the road. He was not paid any compensation. How will he live? How will he support his family? That was how he became mad. When the Modi government came to power, they further liberalised land acquisition rules. We don’t know how we will survive.

“You see this house of mine, it was a leaking, thatched hut till recently. I had one and a half acres of land. I got the house repaired after selling a part of the land.

“The adivasis, dalits and others should organise against the rampant exploitation. They should resist and continue the struggle. That is the only way forward.

“I was active till recently. I have never thought of anything other than politics. I have become old now. It is only now that I have started thinking of my family. My son died. I have two daughters who have children. More and more youngsters must come forward to take up the issues and tackle them. But they don’t seem to have any interest in such things.”

M. Suchitra is an independent journalist based in Kochi, Kerala

(This interview was originally published in Malayalam in Mathrubhumi Weekly May 21-27)