The last of the three

Charu Majumdar died in police custody in 1972. Jangal Santhal died in ignominy in 1981, an alcoholic. And now Kanu (Krishna Kumar) Sanyal has committed suicide in Hatighisha village near Siliguri. (Hatighisha was his office and Sephtulajote was his home; it is unclear where the body was found.) That's the tragic end of the original trinity of the Naxalbari movement. "Naxal movement" is actually a misnomer. Today, Naxalbari is more like a town than a village, and is no longer deprived. It has roads, schools, even a college. But at that time, in 1967, it was a village, where a tribal youth named Bimal Kisan obtained a judicial order to plough his land. However, he was attacked by the landlord and his hoodlums. So much for governance, and the rule of law, and efficient grievance redressal through democratic mechanisms, something worth remembering when we think of solutions to the present Naxal problem. From March to May 1967, tension escalated on questions of tribal access to land. But the trigger on May 25, 1967 was in a village known as Prasadujot, and not in Naxalbari. That too is a sense in which "Naxal movement" is a misnomer. A police official was killed on May 24, 1967, and on the succeeding day, police fired on unarmed poor people and killed 11, including eight women and two children.

Despite Marxist tenets about individuals being important and inexorable forces of history, odd accidents and episodes have immense consequences. The original leaders and mass mobilisers were Jangal Santhal and Kanu Sanyal. As an ideologue, Charu Majumdar came in later, a fact he himself acknowledged.

The subsequent land-to-tiller movement was led by what was then the CPM's Darjeeling committee. Would this have taken off had police firing not occurred? Jangal Santhal stood for assembly elections on a CPM ticket in February 1967 and lost. Would history have been different had he won? Marxism (of any variety) swears by ideology. But it is doubtful Charu Majumdar's ideology would have become a movement had it not been for the mass mobilisations of Jangal Santhal (among tribals) and Kanu Sanyal (among tea estate workers and sharecroppers). In 1967, Kanu Sanyal spent some time in China and is believed to have met Mao Zedong. The split with the CPM, which now believed in elections, was inevitable.

The All-India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR) was formed in 1967 and formally broke away from the CPM. Its thrust was on armed insurrection and the denunciation of electoral politics. On April 22, 1969 (Lenin's birthday), the CPI-ML was formed and the AICCCR formally became the CPI-ML, (though a group from Andhra Pradesh had broken away by then). Beijing Radio and People's Daily announced the onset of "spring thunder". Though never quite accepted as an ideologue, Kanu Sanyal himself came out with a Terai report — "Report on the Peasant Movement in the Terai region" — on the Indian revolution.

The ministry of home affairs set up a committee to investigate the reasons for agrarian unrest. This report, submitted in 1969, was titled "The Causes and Nature of Current Agrarian Tensions". It was freely circulated, though unpublished till much later, in a 1986 OUP book edited by A.R. Desai. The report said, "The basic cause of unrest, namely, the defective implementation of laws enacted to protect the interests of the tribals, remains... Unless this is attended to, it would not be possible to win the confidence of the tribals whose leadership has been taken over by the extremists." In addition, persistent inequalities "may lead to a situation where the discontented elements are compelled to organise themselves and the extreme tensions building up with the 'complex molecule' that is the Indian village may end in an explosion."

If one leaves out the mode of protest, an important distinction, this wasn't that different from what Kanu Sanyal's Terai report said. In those early days, the CPI-ML revolutionaries were often compared to early 20th century Bengali nationalists and terrorists (Jugantar, Anushilan) and there was some sympathy for the cause — though it didn't last once mass rural and tribal mobilisation was replaced by individual urban-centric assassinations and civilian collateral damage. The movement split several times on grounds of environment, ideology, organisation and strategy; one of the best accounts is still Manoranjan Mohanty's 1977 book. There were ego issues and conflicts among individuals too, presented as nitty-gritty disputes on ideology and strategy.

Kanu Sanyal was arrested in 1970 and convicted in the Parvatipuram (Srikakulam) conspiracy case. By then, and more since Charu Majumdar's death in 1972, he had disowned violence, opting for parliamentary democracy. The Naxal movement isn't a homogenous whole and not every group believes in violence. Among ones that do, an ideological history has been built up, around the names of Charu Majumdar, Mahadeb Mukherjee, Saroj Dutt and so on. Barring some Nagi Reddy factions in Andhra, Kanu Sanyal and his contributions have been generally disowned, partly because Kanu Sanyal often focused on tribal and local issues. This is in contrast to myths around Charu Majumdar. There has been similar disowning of the only tribal in the original trinity, Jangal Santhal. His memorials and statues are non-existent throughout the Naxalbari region. There is some message there about mass causes being usurped by the relatively well-off (as Charu Majumdar ancestrally was) and educated leadership, those whom Marxists would call the petty bourgeoisie.

As for Kanu Sanyal himself, he was released from jail in 1977 on Jyoti Basu's personal intervention and formed the Organising Committee of Communist Revolutionaries. In 1985, this became the Communist Organisation of India (Marxist-Leninist) and still later (in 2003) the CPI-ML (Unity Initiative). This believes in electoral democracy. That Terai report (authored in 1968) sounds prescient. "Why have we failed, though temporarily, to advance the struggle of the heroic peasants of Terai? The reasons are: lack of a strong party organisation, failure to rely wholeheartedly on the masses and to build a powerful mass base, ignorance of military affairs, thinking on old lines and a formal attitude towards the establishment of political power and the work of revolutionary land reform."

Socialism of any variety is driven by concerns about inequity and unfairness. This is reflected in some causes Kanu Sanyal identified with recently: Singur, the closure of tea gardens, autonomy to hill districts. Kanu Sanyal's date of birth is uncertain and so is his age at time of death (anything between 78 and 82). But why did he commit suicide? None of the cited reasons (physical ill-health, shortage of money, distress at the state of the Maoist movement) sound convincing. Perhaps he had simply lost his mental balance.

The writer is a Delhi-based economist

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