When night falls, they put a lantern on the ground between Kanu Sanyal and me. There's no electricity in Sebdella village, just off the town of Naxalbari near the West Bengal-Nepal border. The one tubewell is also almost dry. Within a few days, the people will have to start drinking from the dirty stream nearby.
This is where it happened: the peasant revolt that, in 1967, gave the world a term—Naxalite—which still evokes hope, rage, grief and fear.
Busts of Lenin, Stalin and a rebuilt one of Charu Majumdar near Prasadjote, where 11 people died in police firing.
CM and Sanyal were with the CPI(M) when they began working with peasants and tea garden workers of the region.
Revolution is not about killing a traffic policeman, it's about armed struggle, believes Kanu Sanyal.
Some distance from where the firing took place stand three busts: Lenin, Stalin and Charu Majumdar. The bases of the busts read: "Established by Leader of Heart Respected Com.
Nitai Dey, who says he has always supported the CPI(M), was a young man in the fiery days of 1967-68. "What CM and Kanubabu wanted to achieve here—ending the exploitation of the peasantry—had every common man's support. But when they started killing individuals, people saw it as terrorism, not true Communism. I don't think true Communism has anything to do with killing a traffic policeman." My childhood memories well up: Calcutta under Section 144, the sound of distant gunfire, a trader I saw being killed in broad daylight from the window of my school bus, reports of innocents slain by revolutionaries, innocents slaughtered by police.
But talking of votes does not a 'true Communist' make, counters a more radical Pavan Singh.
Children play near the three busts. Do they know who these men are? They are shy, smilingly nodding their heads. Then a little boy comes forward. "Some people broke that statue," he says, pointing to the CM one. "It was a rainy night. They broke its head." "They thought they could wipe out the man's philosophy by breaking his statue," says Sutradhar. "We had it rebuilt." He guards the sculpture now, day and night.
It's by the statues that I meet a young man called Manas Singha and hear of Kamtapur. "I am not a Bengali, I am a Kamtapuri," he tells me. "I have my own language, my own culture. This was Kamtapur before people from South Bengal over-ran it. Today even history books don't mention that glorious kingdom." He speaks in what he says is Kamtapuri, which sounds suspiciously like a dialect of Bengali to me. "Well, then Bengali must have come from Kamtapuri, for it is an older language."
A few miles from Naxalbari is the modest home of Atul Roy, the leader of the Kamtapuri movement. A dozen young men idle in a small room. "We want six districts of West Bengal to form the state of Kamtapur," says Jharua Burman. "Ideally, it should also have a part of Nepal, parts of Assam and Bihar and Bangladesh. Over the centuries, people from South Bengal have taken away our land and turned us from a rich culture into a race of day labourers. We build the buildings here, we build the bridges, but they are owned by Bengalis. It's been going on for just too long."
On the way to Roy's house, I saw posters with the photo of a CPI(M) activist who was recently murdered, allegedly by Kamtapuri militants. "Whenever there is a murder in North Bengal, they blame the Kamtapuris. But do they have any proof?" ask Burman's friends. "What we want to know is how this CPI(M) activist, who was living in a tin shed till some years ago, amassed property worth Rs 4 crore?" Is this a denial of the Kamtapuri role in the murder? I don't know. "The other day, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya said it is time to whip the Kamtapuris into submission. Let's see if he can do that. We are ready."
Tea estates in the area are already getting extortion threats. A police officer tells me: "These boys have linked up with every terrorist group in the northeast: ulfa, the Bodos, the Naga rebels. They are being trained in ulfa camps in Bhutan and they also use hoodlums from the nearby Kishangunj district in Bihar." I look at the faces in Atul Roy's room: boys wanting to be men, college students, young men who see only a bleak economic future for themselves. So much blood ready to be spilt once you add the seductive ethnic twist to problems that are essentially economic. So much blood ready to be spilt on these beautiful plains, where the mountains are just out of sight.
But didn't the peasants' war in Naxalbari solve anything? "A lot of development has happened since then," says panchayat member Dilip Oraon. "Everyone here has land to his name now." When I tell him this, Sanyal responds with a tired smile. "Yes, land distribution has happened but is the land with the peasants? Anyway, what can a poor peasant do with a small piece of land? He does a distress sale and becomes a sharecropper again, it's just that the name of the jotedar is different from the one in 1967. Nothing has changed."
Indeed, someone driving down the highway between the verdant tea estates with rows and rows of men and women plucking leaves, singing to themselves, would never imagine that the situation in the gardens is possibly worse and more incendiary than in 1967. Today, most estates in the area are owned by Calcutta-based fat cats who are doing to tea what they did to jute: suck out every paisa you can without investing a penny. Nothing is spent on replantation; estates here have tea plants which are 90 years old. Labour rights exist only on paper. Minimum wages are not paid. Provident funds are fictional. It is common practice to sack workers before they complete five years on an estate, because that makes them eligible for gratuity. According to the law, tea workers get cheap rations. A few months ago, plantation owners unilaterally changed the rules so that now, if a worker is absent for a single day, he has to pay 345 per cent more for his rations! If he is absent for three days, he pays 1,037 per cent more, and six days, 2,074 per cent more! On July 21, 1999, a new owner-worker agreement was signed for the tea gardens of the Terai-Doars-Darjeeling region with Jyotibabu as witness. Till the middle of November 2000, when I visited Naxalbari, nothing in this agreement had been implemented there.
Sanyal says that he has organised unions in 16 nearby tea estates, and the number is growing rapidly. "For a revolution, you have to raise consciousness. For that, we need a true Communist Party. I am in talks with many Marxist parties and trying to build a united real national Communist Party that has a programme, not just words. But the nation will not wait for that party to be formed, will it? There is much to be done here, now." "We have bought the union leaders from all the big parties," a tea estate manager tells me. "But when I offered 5 kg of our best tea to Kanubabu as a gift, he said, 'Tell me where your tea's available, and I'll go buy it'." But in Naxalbari market, a cynical shopkeeper tells me: "Today, people support politicians who have money. Kanubabu has no money, so he has few followers."
"Kanu Sanyal is organising trade unions now," sneers Pavan Singh. "In the original movement too, he diffused the issue by harping on land redistribution. We were not fighting for land, we were fighting for national power." How is Singh going about it? "We have set up revolutionary committees in villages. Their activities shall be coordinated to form an alternative government." Behind Singh, his family members go about their business, and his wife makes tasty black tea with a touch of ginger.
The question of change. Sanyal laughs. "Yes, things have changed. When I went to jail in 1968, no one here cut trees, there was no smuggling. When I came back from jail 10 years later, on the bus to Naxalbari, I was about to give up my seat to a lady who looked clearly pregnant, and my companion said, don't be a fool, Kanuda, she's just a smuggler, carrying stuff underneath her saree. Some time later, I went to Panighata forest and found there was no forest! I asked a passer-by; he smiled and patted his tummy. They had eaten up the jungle! Did you notice the four men who went by behind your back silently 15 minutes ago, carrying illegally cut timber? All this is change definitely, but for the worse."
But in Naxalbari, that cusp between mountains and plains, the dream of revolution, of a just society, only gets stronger. "Just because the crop failed once, does the farmer not plant seeds next year?" asks Sutradhar. "Our first attempt failed, maybe the losses will be even greater the second time around, but the revolution will come. It has to." "We are one crore people. If five or six lakh Gorkhas can get their own Hill Council, why can't we have our own state of Kamtapur?" asks Jharua Burman. "Every man, woman, schoolchild is with us. We will get Kamtapur."
Kanu Sanyal has broken his foot. He is in pain, but that is nothing new. What are his dreams? He is frail, 72 years old, a short, dark, unassuming and courteous man who has seen too much. "Revolution is not instant coffee. It may come in two years, it may come in 30. It may spread like prairie fire, it may be a slow process. Meanwhile, there is so much to do. Before I die, I hope that I can make a difference to the lives of the poor, oppressed honest people in the Naxalbari region." The pitch dark countryside beyond the flicker of the lantern seems like the inside of a tinder box waiting for a spark.
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