Naxalbari mark I: of misdirected class struggles
Naxalbari has not died and it will never die.”
Charu Mazumdar, the co-founder of what is often referred to as the Naxalite movement wrote this emphatic assertion in an article titled Long live the heroic peasants in Naxalbari! in the July 1971–January 1972 issue of Liberation, the rebel party’s journal.
The thing is: it died brutally, after a bloodthirsty run. But the spirit of Naxalbari continues 50 years later in today’s Maoist rebellion which, even though it is under stress with the greatest ever deployment of security forces for any of India’s internal wars entirely of its own making and sustenance, is far from over. I call this Maoism Mark V. Maybe Mazumdar, an inspiration behind Mark I, knew a thing or two about the faltering execution of the idea of India which births and sustains rebellions.
Last week, I shared with you the spark. Let me now share the philosophy and character.
An essentially anti-landlord movement was co-opted by a radical faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M). Led by Charu Mazumdar and other disenchanted party members from across India—West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar—it formed the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries after the Naxalbari incident of farmers’ protest and police retaliation in May 1967. This faction would formally break away in 1969 and call itself the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)—and adopt “annihilation” of “class enemies’ as a key platform to achieving revolutionary success.
“Only by waging class struggle—the battle of annihilation—the new man will be created ... ,” Mazumdar declared at the First Congress of his party in Kolkata, in May 1970. “And with this death defying spirit he will go close to the enemy, snatch his rifle, avenge the martyrs and the people’s army will emerge.”
The initial 1967 movement mushroomed mainly because of the reaction to a massive crackdown on peasant rebels by West Bengal’s government. Jyoti Basu of CPI (M), who was to later become West Bengal’s longest serving chief minister, was then home minister of a coalition government. Brutal government response resulted in the movement spreading across Bengal, and Bihar, and into cities, primarily Kolkata. It crossed the class barrier and consumed intellectuals and students, even those with no background or interest in Communist principles. It emptied impressive fractions of several universities in Kolkata and Delhi, besides other northern cities, and in undivided Andhra Pradesh, which was on the boil with a similar movement of its own.
The phase in Andhra—the ‘Srikakulam phase’—began in 1968 when, inspired by the peasant uprising in Naxalbari, a group of dissident CPI(M) leaders from Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, among them Nagabhushan Patnaik, Tarimala Nagi Reddy and Chandra Pulla Reddy, decided to initiate two nuclei of armed revolution in Andhra Pradesh: Srikakulam in the east and the Telengana region—the entire northwest of the state which already had a history of peasant revolt. Some of its leaders met Mazumdar in Kolkata the same year.
Upon their return a decision was taken to immediately launch an armed struggle. That happened on 25 November 1968, when Patnaik and others, along with about 250 tribals, attacked the house of a landlord in Parvatipuram, took away food grain and destroyed documents that formally indentured labour. The following year, the movement spilled across to the border regions of Odisha. Rebels even declared Srikakulam a “liberated zone”. That rebel Utopia was eventually crushed.
Mazumdar had written soon after the first anniversary of the Naxalbari incident: “If the Naxalbari peasant struggle has any lesson for us, it is this: militant struggles must be carried on not for land, crops, etc., but for the seizure of state power.”
He and his colleagues simply weren’t ready for that hyperjump. It proved to be too impetuous, too unprepared for blowback, and often too violent, with the killing of even traffic policemen in Kolkata—gratuitous deaths. There were soon critics within the movement. Better organization and planning would arrive with Mark II and later.
And Mazumdar? He was arrested in mid-July of 1972 in Kolkata. Naxal die-hards believe his critics effectively gave him up. Mazumdar’s 12-day incarceration in the lock-up of Lalbazar Police Station ended in his death in custody, at 56. The police ensured he was cremated with only immediate family in attendance. There is talk he was gruesomely marked.
The second 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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