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Opinion | The long shadow cast by China on communist politics in India

Indian communist movements and parties have had a complex relationship with the red republic

As India and China face off in Ladakh, I can’t help but recall my childhood in a Calcutta where the walls were covered with stenciled portraits of Mao Zedong and the line, “Chin-er Chairman amader Chairman (China’s Chairman is our Chairman)." I had barely crossed kindergarten, but I could feel the pall of fear that hung over the city. People did not venture out of their homes after nightfall.

One afternoon, from our school bus, we watched a young man take a trader’s life with a sword on busy Gariahat Road. I learnt what “Section 144" was, and what gunfire sounded like. Every other day, there was a report of a traffic constable killed. “How does killing a traffic policeman help a revolution?" my father would ask. “Standing there, rain or shine, for eight hours a day, unarmed, he is as much a victim of the system as the people these boys claim to be fighting for." In a supreme irony, more than 30 years later, I would hear Kanu Sanyal, one of the top leaders of the Naxal movement, say almost the words, sitting in his home in the little town of Naxalbari: “Killing a traffic policeman is not revolution," he said. “It only turned the people against us. We were wrong."

Then began the brutal crackdown, after the Congress swept to power in the state in 1971. Thousands of young men and women were killed and thrown into the Hooghly or secret mass graves. The names of policemen like Runu Guha Niyogi were spoken in hushed whispers. His methods of interrogation were reputedly fearsome. The Naxalites’ supreme leader Charu Mazumdar (“CM", as his followers called him) was arrested in 1972 and died in custody. By the time we left Calcutta for Bombay in 1974, an uneasy peace had returned.

Naxalism was a leftist extreme, but the broad story of Indian communists’ engagement with China down the decades has been complex. In 1962, during the war with China, many in the Communist Party of India (CPI) openly supported China. It even sacked VS Achuthanandan, then a central committee member and later chief minister of Kerala, for suggesting that a blood donation camp be organized for Indian soldiers. And in 1964, as Sino-Soviet relations soured badly, the CPI split. Pro-China members led by EMS Namboodiripad and Jyoti Basu formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M).

But in 1967, CPI(M) expelled CM who advocated Mao’s path of agrarian-based “total revolution". On 18 March 1967, Naxalbari’s Peasants’ Council, led by CM, Sanyal and the fiery Jangal Santhal, had announced that it was ready for an armed revolt to redistribute all land controlled by landlords or jotedars, and end centuries of exploitation. Things came to a head when on 24 May, following fights between sharecroppers and jotedars’ henchmen, police inspector Sonam Wangdi died in a rain of arrows from peasants.

At a peasants’ public meeting the next day, 11 people died in police firing, including seven women and two children. An anonymous poet wrote on the walls of Calcutta: “Amar bari tomar bari/Naxalbari Naxalbari (My home your home/Naxalbari Naxalbari)", and the violent movement that would sweep Bengal (and exists in parts of India even today, now called “Maoist") had acquired a name. On 5 July, the Chinese People’s Daily hailed the Naxalbari uprising as “spring thunder over India". Coincidentally, the same day, West Bengal’s home minister Jyoti Basu approved Operation Crossbow, a massive police action against Naxalites. All CPI(M) office-bearers who had any sympathy for the uprising were expelled.

In the Naxalbari area, Crossbow managed to crush the revolt by late 1968, but the movement had already spread across Bengal. Pavan Singh, who saw his mother die in police firing on 25 May 1967, told me when I met him in 2000: “When Jyotibabu became home minister, he came here. Jangal Santhal’s wife and I garlanded him." A year later, Singh alleged, the same man ordered their uprising ruthlessly suppressed. Mao may have been too busy with his Cultural Revolution, which is estimated to have left millions dead, to pay much attention.

But, as I said, the story of Indian communists’ engagement with China is complex. Today, China is the only major country in the world which calls itself “communist". In recent years, CPI(M) leaders like Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and state party boss Kodiyeri Balakrishnan have praised China and North Korea for fighting “US-led imperialist forces". During the 2017 India-China stand-off at Doklam, the party’s journal People’s Democracy cautioned that India should “let Bhutan take the lead in negotiating with China…(and) can lend support to Bhutan’s position". It noted that “the Modi government has increased the profile of the Dalai Lama" and said this was a “serious irritant for China". Last week, following the clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley, the CPI(M) politburo released a statement that called the incident “unfortunate" and did not even name China.

When we met in 2000, Kanu Sanyal was the last surviving member of the original Naxalbari leadership. He killed himself on 23 March 2010, almost exactly 43 years from the day “spring thunder" rolled for the first time.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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