Naxalbari: India’s greatest war with itself
About Naxalbari, and the spark that set a subcontinent on fire.
Some fire: it still burns 50 years later, even as India seeks to sit on the high table of global affairs, as an overwhelming vote at home for inclusive progress turns out to have been interpreted by the victors as a mandate for exclusive persuasion.
It began as a farmers’ protest from a cluster of three villages near Naxalbari in the Dooars region of northern Bengal, west of the regional airport at Bagdogra. In one district, Darjeeling, of one state, West Bengal.
After five decades of undeniable socio-economic development, avatars of the rebellion—or “Naxalite” movement—that spread after leftwing radicals co-opted that farmers’ protest, continues to mark the failures of India as a nation. Last year, the ministry of home affairs (which tellingly has a Left Wing Extremism Division) recorded leftwing rebellion of various degrees of intensity in 106 districts across nine states. Seven years earlier, that count was nearly a third of India’s 600-plus districts, across 14 states.
The fount remains Naxalbari.
“Do you remember what happened that day?” I asked Punjab Rao when I visited him some years ago.
Rao knew what I meant, this former Indian Army soldier from the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra who settled down in these parts after being decommissioned, and became a farmer-revolutionary.
“Twenty-fourth of May, 1967. Just up the lane from this house,” he pointed behind him, ageing eyes alight, voice sharp. “Landless peasants had had enough.”
His rundown hut was a few yards off the road near Naxalbari, one that travels northwest to Nepal’s eastern borders; another sliver travels southwest towards Bihar, linking northern Bengal through forest, farmland and the region’s mainstay, tea gardens. A patchwork of farms are still worked by poor, mostly tenant farmers. The Naxalbari of revolutionary grammar was really a cluster of villages and hamlets with quirky names from nature and history: Hatighisa, after elephants; Phansidewa, literally, hanged; the railway hub of New Jalpaiguri—the place of olives.
Anger had been brewing over scarcity of food, issues of landlessness, share-cropping and bonded labour for about a year up to May 1967, Rao recalled. “There was talk of revolution, but they just wanted to assert their rights. They had taken over land. Then the police came, called by the jotedar.”
“As soon as we heard about it, we set off with whatever we had—swords, bows and arrows, spears, farming implements. The people with us, as soon as they saw the group of police and landlords, they let the arrows fly. One hit the landlord, another hit someone on the leg. The police ran away. That was the beginning.”
The police returned in large numbers the next day, and destroyed houses, broke what they could, mixed rice and lentils with dirt, destroyed all other food. By then the spark had spread to Bengaijote, just beyond Naxalbari. Eleven protestors died by police firing that day.
“Naxalbari had its first martyrs,” said Rao. “And the Naxalbari movement was born. Bas.”
There is a memorial to the eleven in Bengaijote, by the Tukruria forest, a once-dense tract that proved to be a good hiding place for rebels—from the nearby villages as well as Kolkata and elsewhere. Unlike their rural comrades who fought for their lands and livelihoods, the urban guerrillas were driven by idealism layered with the rhetoric of Mao Zedong. Or those of Charu Mazumdar, a parent of the extreme movement that broke ranks with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to formally establish the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)—the “Naxalite” party.
The hamlet of Bengaijote is mostly a scattering of huts, a handful of brick houses, and inhabitants a mix: some impoverished Rajbongshi tribals, indigenous to this area, some Santhal tribals, brought in generations earlier as labour for tea gardens. You may hear Nepali pop music.
In a small clearing is a makeshift flagstaff with a small red flag, and four pedestals painted blood red with busts on each. Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Mazumdar. To the right of the Naxalbari pantheon is a memorial to the 11 killed on “Historic 25th May 1967”. All unarmed protestors, women and men: Dhaneshwari Devi, Seemaswari Mallick, Nayaneswari Mallick, Surubala Burman, Sonamati Singh, Phoolmati Devi, Samsari Saibani, Gaudrau Saibani, Kharsingh Mallick. “And two children”.
Several thousand have followed in India’s greatest war with itself: innocents, rebels, and those tasked to combat them. They die every other day, statistics over solutions.
The first of an occasional series about the history, trajectory, the state, and implications of leftwing extremism in India on the 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari uprising. Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.
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