On 23 May 1967, Inspector Sonam Wangdi was killed by protesters in a place called Naxalbari in Bengal. While things had been on the boil for a while, now they took a violent turn culminating in severe police action in July and the eventual arrest of the leader of the protesters, Charu Mazumdar.
On 5 July 1967, the People’s Daily, published from Peking (now Beijing) published an editorial entitled "Spring Thunder over India". In the piece, it referred to the rebellion of "revolutionary peasants" in Darjeeling. The editorial was talking about Naxalbari.
Naxalbari is situated in northern Bengal in an area that has come to be known as the "chicken’s neck", separating Nepal and Bangladesh. Between March and May 1967, more than 100 incidents took place here of armed peasants forcibly occupying land and redistributing grain to the needy. The state government had effectively lost all control as peasants under the leadership of Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal, among others, engaged in what they believed was "revolutionary activity".
By July, when the government re-established a semblance of control in the area, the Naxals (as they came to be known) had gripped the imagination of the nation. The movement soon spread to many other parts of India and many students and intellectuals came to be associated with it. Mazumdar died in 1972, and since then, the Naxal movement has ebbed and risen many times over.
The Naxals—or more correctly, the Maoists of Naxalbari—were not alone in their revolutionary fervour and rhetoric. A variety of leftist groups, many motivated by Maoist ideology, sprang up in different parts of the world during the 1960s and 1970s, all wedded to the idea of a violent overthrow of the ruling set-up and the establishment of a new social order.
In 1967 in neighbouring Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), a young communist student who had studied medicine in Moscow, Rohana Wijeweera, disillusioned with the politics of Ceylon’s mainstream communist parties, formed a new grouping that later came to be known as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). By 1970, the JVP had mobilized considerable support on university campuses and among the intelligentsia. They demanded economic policies that would address the problems of the working classes and strive towards a more egalitarian order.
In April 1971, after months of careful preparation, the JVP struck by taking control of several police stations, government buildings and effectively laying siege to many parts of Sri Lanka for the next two months. Retaliation from the government was quick and brutal. An emergency was declared, the army was disptached and it began executing people on the mere suspicion of being JVP sympathizers. A French journalist wrote of Colombo’s Kelaniya River, “... with hundreds of motionless onlookers... The police who had killed them, let the bodies float downstream in order to terrorise the population.” The first JVP insurrection came to a bloody end.
In 1987, in the middle of a brutal battle that the Sri Lankan government was fighting with the Tamil Tigers, the JVP attempted a second insurrection. The government retaliated violently yet again and killed Wijeweera in circumstances that can be at best be termed "suspicious" and quelled the rebellion. The JVP continues to be active in the Sri Lankan political scenario and has to an extent retained its leftist character even as it has occasionally played the Sinhala nationalist card.
In the 1960s, owing to Cold War politics, Marxism was something of an anathema in erstwhile West Germany (the Communist Party had been outlawed in 1956). Left-leaning individuals were regarded with suspicion by the press and members of the establishment. In 1967, students who had protested against the Shah of Iran’s visit to Berlin and the Vietnam War had come in for rough treatment at the hands of the police.
In such circumstances, the Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group), a leftist revolutionary group was founded in 1970 by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. Ideologically, the group drew from a number of sources, including Mao, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon and Herbert Marcuse.
Upset at what they saw as the continuing authoritarian policies of the government, its support of African dictatorships for its own interests and its inability to purge itself of former Nazis, the group engaged in a violent campaign of assassinations, bank robberies (to fund its activities), kidnappings and other violent activities with a view to destabilizing the government.
The group’s initial leaders were all arrested by the early 1970s, but a second line of leadership continued its activities with the 1975 kidnapping of a Berlin mayoral candidate by an allied group being its high-point. Eventually, the group lost its potency and faded away. Years later, in 1998, it sent a letter to the press proclaiming its disbandment.
Another European country that was witness to "red terror" at around the same time was Italy. During the 1970s, Italy witnessed a spate of assassinations, kidnappings and robberies, many of which were committed by the Red Brigades. Formed in 1970, the Red Brigades stood for the creation of a revolutionary state and for taking Italy out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), under whose auspices the Americans maintained army bases in Italy as a deterrent against the Soviet threat. The group’s most infamous act was the kidnapping and later, murder of the former Italian PM, Aldo Moro in 1978. By the 1980s, police had managed to break up the group and many of its members were sent to prison.
The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) was founded in the late 1960s by a philosophy professor, Abimael Guzman in Peru. Taking to armed action in 1980, the group initially won public sympathy by punishing government officials and unpopular leaders. But its brutal tactics soon came in for widespread condemnation. The group’s exact ideology has also been something of a mystery. Though leftist, the group attempted to establish something called "New Democracy" after the Maoist pattern.
To this end, besides killing leaders from traditional political parties, the group also killed leftists who disagreed with the group’s ideology and tactics. Operating from the Peruvian highlands, the group controlled vast swathes of rural territory at one point where it delivered swift justice in "People’s Courts". Guzman’s arrest in 1992 effectively decimated the group, though a small faction continues to remain active.
Left-wing groups operated in the US too during this time. One group that captured public attention was the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) that operated in California. The group formed by Donald DeFreeze aimed at uniting all left-wing, feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist and other struggles into one composite unit. DeFreeze wanted all races, genders and ages to fight together in a left-wing united front, and to live together peacefully.
In February 1974, the group kidnapped Patty Hearst, a student in the University of California in Berkeley. The granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, Patty was from an extremely wealthy family. Just 19 when kidnapped, she was allegedly brainwashed and sexually abused by the group and soon became an enthusiastic participant in the group’s activities. From time to time, she issued propaganda announcements for the group from an unknown location. Captured 19 months later, Patty did prison time before her sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter. Later, Bill Clinton pardoned her.
DeFreeze’s death in 1974 marked the SLA’s downward slide. Many others were captured and a few went underground. The group had been more or less ineffective at the time of Patty’s arrest in September 1975.
While most leftist groups thrived for a time and then were brought to heel, one group—the Tupamaros from Uruguay—bucked the trend. This group, named after the 18th-century Peruvian revolutionary who fought Spanish colonial rule, Tupac Amaru II, was originally conceived of as a political movement. But, Uruguay’s ruling military regime’s repressive actions of suppressing dissidence, labour unrest and its torture of political activists saw the group taking to violence. The group soon announced itself on the national stage in the early 1960s, robbing banks and stores and redistributing the pickings among the poor in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. Its slogan was "Words divide us. Action unites us."
Later, it conducted a series of high-profile kidnappings (of a CIA official and the British ambassador among others) and sought to force the government’s hand and create a more liberal political atmosphere. Government action as in other parts of the world was violent and swift and by 1972, the group had been largely rendered ineffective with the arrest of its top leadership, including its founder Raul Sendic. The leadership however refused to compromise with the government and chose to live in squalid prison conditions till 1985 when liberal democracy was restored.
In 2010, Jose Mujica from the group became Uruguay’s president. Known for his humble lifestyle as demonstrated by his refusal to live in the presidential palace and his use of a 1987 Beetle as his official transport, Mujica retired in 2015 with high popularity ratings. A book published on the group in 2014 calls them "The Robin Hood Guerrillas".
Is Naxalbari merely an empty symbol? Is it truly an inspiration? What is the future of Indian Maoism? These questions are as open as they were in the years that followed the incidents of May 1967.
Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. Views are personal.
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