Fifty Years After Naxalbari, Popular Movements Still Have Lessons to Learn

The popular upsurge of the late 1960s, while spectacular, had many paradoxes, and eventually was stymied by the bind of a universal 'line' and the parliamentary framework of rule.

In 1967, an armed rebellion by peasants in Naxalbari, a hitherto unknown village in northern Bengal, broke out that was to leave its imprint not just on the politics of the time but on the course of radical movements all the way down to the present. Fifty years on what happened in West Bengal needs to be put in context, taking into account the events of the preceding years and decade.

From 1965 onwards, there were street revolts and protests that spread to small towns and villages across the state. West Bengal witnessed industrial unrest, a food crisis, an upsurge of the youth and students, civil liberties movements against oppressive policies like the Defence of India Rules (DIR) in the wake of the border war of 1962, and a massive radicalisation of the popular mood against the ruling Congress government. Thus what happened in 1967 was not a sudden event, though the fury of the response took many by surprise. The events also clarified the points of contention – it became necessary for political forces to define their respective stands. Who stood where, who were ‘friends’, and who were ‘enemies’, and which way the path of the movement lay. In this sense, of course, 1967 was “spring thunder”.

To study the protests and revolt in the latter half of the ‘sixties, the context of popularity is important. This is because it indicated the flexible nature of the unrest, which spread quickly through the state. There were many actors, many organisations and many modes. The participation of small peasantry in the villages, slum dwellers and the lower middle class in towns and students in colleges, schools and universities, all made the movements popular in nature. It was not a unique show by single party. Indeed, this plurality was crucial for the unrest to spread and engulf the whole of West Bengal.

In another way, the popular context characterised the nature of the revolt. The upsurge was not centrally directed – it occasioned the emergence of plural subjects and its flexibility and creativity in modes of articulation had much to do with the context of popular movements in the preceding decade. In fact, to anticipate the history a little, the untimely centralisation of the radical forces following the peasant struggle in Naxalbari, and undue haste in ideologically framing the movement and formalising it on the lines of an established doctrine of a party organisation bore the death knell of the upsurge.

Radical subjectivity

The radicalisation in the second half of the 1960s was also extremely republican and egalitarian in an odd way. It erased all distinctions, hierarchies, and inequalities from the map of revolution. There was no caste, no gender, no occupational distinctions. Everyone was a ‘Red Guard in the service of revolution’. Workers were to go villages, peasants were to be educated in political ideals, jails had to be transformed into universities, affluent students had to ‘declass’ themselves, and all this was to happen not in an isolated or exceptional way, but generally, en masse – in the form of a movement.

The nation was to have no nationalism; it called for the chairman of China to be “our chairman”. As if the distinctions that could not be eradicated from society could be made to vanish away from the landscape of revolution. Radical subjectivity was the main mark of the movement at the time. In some sense, we can say that the movement of the sixties gave birth to the political subject.

During the course of the upsurge, issues of property relations were raised directly. The land question became the most important issue in the radicalisation of the movement. Likewise, in factories, workers-led councils and solidarity platforms became a dynamic idea. Autonomy became a guiding principle for mass movements.

Questions were raised on the streets – what does it mean to act in the name of freedom? What does it mean to act politically? What does social transformation require? The extremely contentious politics of the time forced people, in particular the street fighters, to ask the rulers – who are you to rule? What are our roles then? Who is the ruler and who is the subject? In short, the issue of the political subject emerged directly under specific conditions, cutting many philosophical-ideological knots. Political necessities led to new thinking; political subject-hood became a practical question of society. This was a great transition, whose significance unfortunately is still not fully understood by social theorists and political thinkers in India. These questions did not present theories  – except in extremely distorted ways in party doctrines and in the programmes of the revolutionaries, which mostly echoed the Chinese experience of revolution. These questions presented not theories but non-conformist ‘thinking’, not philosophy, but rebellious ‘thought’, and not ideologies but ‘subjugated ideas’.

The movement was quickly dubbed as fanatical. It is important to understand today how the emergence of the political subject was seen by established society as the fanatic’s appearance – unruly, violent, and unpredictable. The political subject exceeds the standards set by the regime for permissible violence, and displays determination in the pursuit of a goal – hence its unruliness, its fanaticism.

Fanaticism is the readiness to go to war, discontinuing the prevailing mode of politics. Political subjects exceed rules of politics. The unruly subject in India not only repeatedly exceeded the overwhelming legal realities, but demonstrated by its life experience that the emergence of the political subject is fundamentally a matter of non-conformity with the dominant thinking of the time. In short, if politics has to set its face at times against given legal rules and codes, and given political modes, how will it act? The question is thus about the autonomy of politics: what can be the enabling or debilitating conditions affecting the autonomy of politics, of the subject that claims and gains political agency?

As with several other politically climactic periods, the period of the Naxalite movement had a plural composition, even though it left in the minds of people and on society a singular impression of extremism, of an unbridled radical attitude and youth upsurge. These impressions were not pure myth, and had elements of reality in them. The movement had the participation of peasants, students, youth, sections of lower middle classes, and workers. In this sense the popular movements of the decades of the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties culminated in the radical upsurge of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, it will be important to see how these sectional participations played out in the upsurge as a whole, and how specific class participations varied, and how the workers movements, particularly the Great Railway Strike of 1974, was the moment of climax. After that, came the imposition of the Emergency, which brought the the curtains down on the decade of the upsurge, though in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh the radicalisation continued, and the movement spread.

Shackled by structure

Can we compare the memory of radicalisation in the 1960s with other epochs of such radical upsurge? For instance, India in the 1940s, elsewhere in Europe in the 1960s, or more classically, the European revolutions in the 1840s? We have to explore some of these questions in order to understand more comprehensively the historical significance of the upsurge during the 1960s. How did Marx, for instance, view the European revolutions in 1848?

With the defeat of the upsurge, the imposition of Emergency in 1975, and mainstream politics swinging back to the parliamentary mode, did the following epoch usher in an age of passive revolution? What general lessons does this carry for a chronicle of popular movements and popular politics?

Looking back at Naxalbari. Representational image. Credit: sreenisreedharan/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Looking back at Naxalbari. Representational image. Credit: sreenisreedharan/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From the point of a legacy, we can ask one more question: if the years of the mid-sixties carried the imprint of a crisis, was it also not a crisis of the radical form, a crisis of the transcendent nature of popular protests that were to culminate in an upsurge? The crisis of organisation, decimation of cadres and leaders, the vanishing or the indefinable point of retreat, the decline of plurality, doctrinal despotism, and multiple splits – was this the fate of the movement? Why and how did the source of popular protest get exhausted in the process of radicalisation and organisational transformation? While we may ask these questions now, there is no escape from the fact that the entire movement, notwithstanding its diversity, was finally framed (or shackled if you like) in the organisational form of a party, which, while carrying the mantle of revolt, did everything required to destroy the spontaneity, multiplicity, and diversity of the movement and the participants. What dialectical irony lay in this?

The upsurge of the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies had many paradoxes – while the movement spread, it had limited epicentres; while it was autonomous, the leaders had a desire to centralise; while the urban youth dominated, the centrality of the peasant remained in question; while there was reliance on China for ideological-theoretical guidance, the overwhelming national specificities of India had given birth to the movement; and finally, there was the lower class basis of participation in the movement and the middle class doctrinaire.

What political organisational strategy in place of the one that had focused so much on Mao’s ideas (commonly known in those days as Mao Tse Tung’s Thoughts or today as Maoism) could have coped with these paradoxes and taken popular struggles as the basis of going forward for social transformation? What kind of federalisation of radical politics was the call of the hour? Perhaps a new history of Indian radicalism will  provide us with a possible answer someday.

The bind of universality

The line between popular protest and a radical-revolutionary movement is porous. The years of 1966-74 proved that historically, it is difficult to keep the two categories – the popular and the revolutionary – separate, though we may perhaps need to make an analytical distinction. An important question therefore is, how influential were the inner party struggles in the communist party – such as the 1964 split in the Communist Party of India which led to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Burdwan plenum of the CPI (M) in 1968, when radicals within the party formed the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries ­– in developing the popular upsurge?

At one level, we may say that intellectual struggles reflect, in a particular way, the ongoing class struggles. Yet, if this statement is not to become a banal declaration, we have to ask about the historical connection between the political debates within the party and the ongoing popular movements of the time against the Congress government at the Centre and the states at that time. Even more fundamental is the relationship between the particular nature of the peasant and workers’ movement, and the political formulations of the AICCCR, later known as the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninst) such as that India was semi-colonial and semi-feudal, that the city has to be surrounded by the countryside, that peasants had to be at the centre in any revolutionary strategy, etc.

We can see striking similarities when this epoch is compared to the period between 1946-50. Then too, people were in revolt, and then too, the revolutionaries wanted a universal ‘line’ that could help Indian transformation. And as we know, the revolutionaries failed then, with the popular upsurge finally stymied by the parliamentary framework of rule. This time, Chinese experiences and Mao’s teachings were to provide the universal framework. What is this bind of universality that has repeatedly inspired Indian revolutionaries, only to fail the cause of social transformation?

Perhaps we need to review the history of popular politics, popular upsurge, and revolt in the 1960s and 1970s in the way Marx repeatedly went back to the history of 1848 or the way Lenin repeatedly drew the link between the developing unrest of the Russian society of his time and the work of the Bolsheviks. This calls for a greater dialectical understanding of the relationship between the autonomy of popular movements and unrest and the political-organisational strategy of the party that the upsurge gives rise to.

Ranabir Samaddar is Distinguished Chair in Forced Migration studies, Calcutta Research Group. He can be contacted at [email protected].