Naxalbari: The Beginning

As one approaches Naxalbari, half an hour from Siliguri in West Bengal, it is difficult not to feel overawed. This is the place that has lent more than just its name to a farmers' uprising that soon changed the course of the country's history and much of its present. Yet, the place itself is like any other in rural Bengal—lush fields where the crops wait to be harvested, quaint tea-stalls where the old and the young while away their time. The quietness and solitude of the place are in stark contrast to the tumult that abounds a few hundred miles away in Lalgarh, where a fire that germinated in Naxalbari now singes the political machinery of the state.

Currently, the Naxalbari gram panchayat, with its 21 villages, has a population close to 25,000. Around 6,000 people work in the neighbouring three tea gardens while many till their own land.

In order to understand the Naxalite movement of West Bengal, it's important to go back in time to look at the Telangana and the Tebhaga movements that shook parts of India in the 1940s. The Telengana movement in Andhra Pradesh was one of the first instances of an armed struggle by peasants and farmers. At the same time, Bengal witnessed the Tebhaga movement, when the farmers of Bengal struggled for their rights.

The repression of farmers in the state, then ruled by the Congress, triggered a seething rage that only deepened with time. Throughout the fifties, the Terai region of West Bengal, which was barely affected during the Tebhaga struggle, saw discontent brewing in its tea gardens.

Mujibur Rahman, one of the prominent faces of the Naxalite movement, says, "The tea garden workers' union back then sowed the seeds of the Naxalite movement. It taught us that from the malik's point of view, labour and cattle were equally expendable."

The eventual agitation of 1967 was influenced by the general political climate of the time and moulded by the attitude of the local political leaders. Abhijit Mazumdar, son of legendary Naxal leader Charu Mazumdar, says "Baba was convinced of the necessity of arming the peasantry for a more effective struggle. According to Baba, the Tebhaga movement had failed due to the betrayal of the rich peasants."

Mazumdar found an ally in Krishna Kumar alias Kanu Sanyal. During the course of the movement, Mazumdar came in contact with Jangal Santhal, Kesab Sarkar, Babulal Biswakarma, Kadam Mallik and others who were active members of the CPI. "In 1964, when the CPI split and the CPI(M) was formed, Baba showed his undisguised inclination to the Maoist line," says Abhijit Mazumdar.

The clash
In May 1967, the first police bullet was fired, triggering a violent phase in the movement. Sabitri Rao, wife of Punjab Rao, yet another name associated with the Naxalite movement, is an eyewitness to the incident. "One morning, a few of the men went to till the fields and didn't return. We suspected that they had disappeared for a drink. But we got worried and scared when they did not return even the next day. A few others went missing the day after too. The next morning, some of us hid behind the bushes and watched. As soon as the men would begin tilling, the police would appear and take them away, telling them that the jotdar who owned the land has ordered their arrests. The next morning, many of us gathered in the fields at Borojorujot and decided we won't allow the police to do whatever they pleased. In the confrontation that followed, inspector Sonam Wangdi was killed by arrows. No one still knows who shot that arrow."

Abhijit Mazumdar adds, "After Wangdi was shot, the police had to flee the scene. The tribals actually picked up the police rifles that lay on the ground and handed them over to the police."

On May 25, a bigger police contingent arrived in Naxalbari. The locals picked up whatever weapon they could find, the women had their children tied to their backs. The police fired at the demonstrators, killing nine women and two children. Close to the Naxalbari railway station, at Bengaijot, a plaque shows the names of those who lost their lives that day.

It was after this incident that the movement lost its agrarian character and became a militant movement. In spite of his own reservations, Kanu Sanyal followed Charu Mazumdar and opted for an armed struggle. On June 28, 1967, at a big rally of peasants and tea garden workers in Phansidwa, near Naxalbari, a resolution was taken to fight the battle to the finish. The agitation led to tension within the CPI(M). "It is ironical that it was Communist party members like Hare Krishna Konar who initially inspired us to grab land from the tyrannical landlords so that it could be distributed to sharecroppers. Yet, they themselves backed out when the time came for action. There is no peaceful way to establishing rights for the poor. The gun is where the answer lies," says Mujibur Rehman, as his eyes light up with memories of the revolution.

A team of ministers from the United Front government visited the area and suggested certain land reform measures. Finally a plan was approved on July 5, 1967, and the warring leaders were asked to surrender. By the end of August that year, over a thousand people were arrested and leaders like Kanu Sanyal, Charu Mazumdar and Biswanath Mukherjee left the area and took shelter in the neighbouring districts of West Dinajpur and Jalpaiguri.

Two years later, at a huge May Day rally in 1969, at the foot of the Octerlony monument in Kolkata, Kanu Sanyal announced the formation of a third party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). "I had deep differences with Mazumdar even before the CPI(ML) was formed. He believed in killing people, I didn't—it was as simple as that. I had been released from jail just a month earlier. I was suddenly told to rush to Kolkata to announce the formation of the party. I read out a text prepared by Comrade Saroj Dutta and others," recounts Sanyal.

The flames of the uprising spread all over Bengal through the late 60s and early 70s. Never before, or after, has a movement that began in the interest of rural farmers found so much support amidst urban Kolkata. The flames eventually died down sometime in the mid 1970s, after it was suppressed by the Siddhartha Sankar Ray headed Congress government. Many of the Naxals were released when the Left Front assumed power in 1977. However, as Kanu Sanyal insists, "Contrary to popular perception, the Left Front did not pardon us. We had been detained illegally in jails in Andhra Pradesh all those years. We moved the Andhra High Court and eventually won our freedom through a legal battle."

Naxalbari, now
Today, Naxalbari and its people barely evoke memories of a revolutionary past. A young kid, when asked if he was afraid to venture into the nearby Tukuriya forest, where the Naxals used to train in guerrilla warfare, responds, "We go to the forest regularly. There are no Naxals but there are snakes." The old men of the area refuse to acknowledge that any of them lived here before the 80s; some only say that they have heard of "some police firing on hooligans" that happened many years ago. "You won't find any traces, no matter where you go in Naxalbari. Memories have been systematically obliterated. People are too afraid to speak even now," says Abhijit Mazumdar.

Kanu Sanyal still lives in his small mud hut, frail from a cerebral arrest a year ago. He has his own breakaway faction from the CPI(ML). Jangal Santhal passed away in 1987—he spent his last few days as an incurable alcoholic. When asked if Santhal had become disillusioned, Kanu Sanyal said, "No, Jangal was never disillusioned. After coming out of jail, he bought a car even though I advised him against it. He didn't have the means to maintain the car. He married four times, yet never knew how to feed all his wives. Alcohol killed him."

Mujibur Rehman's family today runs a momo shop. The old man still loves recounting tales from his flaming past. "There was a reward of fifty thousand rupees on my head, dead or alive. Even then, I would roam around fearlessly. No police or CRPF would dare touch me."

Khokon Majumdar, yet another firebrand leader of the movement, today lives in penury, rendered near speechless by a cerebral attack that hit him a year ago.

So how does one connect the dots from Naxalbari to Lalgarh? Abhijit Mazumdar says, "The Naxalite struggle was based on the interests of the landless, not on the interests of anyone representing a particular religion, caste or creed. The Maoists in Lalgarh today fight on the premise of protecting tribal rights."

Sanyal sees no hope for the Maoists, "I hate the phrase 'Red Corridor'. Maoist influence is limited to some areas in the forests. Since their survival depends on guerrilla warfare, it is unlikely that Maoist influence will ever go beyond the jungles of West Bengal, Bihar or Andhra Pradesh."

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