It is difficult to believe that the friendly man waving at us from the second-floor balcony of his house in Calcutta’s well-to-do Salt Lake City neighbourhood was once upon a time on the West Bengal Police’s “most wanted” list. Arrested in 1971, when he was underground as a central committee member of the CPI-ML and secretary of its ‘Bengal-Bihar-Orissa Border Committee’, and slapped with several non-bailable charges, including Section 302 IPC for murder, he spent eight years in a north Bengal prison, including four in solitary confinement—“with my hands and legs shackled to a ball-and-chain device,” he recalls.
How did he keep his sanity? “Why would I lose it?” he retorts, giving a hint of the proverbial Naxalite nerves of steel.
Ashim Chatterjee was a student of economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, in 1967 when peasants and tea-garden workers in and around Naxalbari, a village in north Bengal, organised sit-INS in the fields owned by landlords (‘jotedar’ in Bengali), infuriating the then state government, which sent in the police to evict and arrest them. On May 24, a police inspector was killed with an arrow; when the police returned the next day and fired at a crowd of villagers. Among those killed were eight women. There was outrage across the state and even outside, leading to what came to be known as the Naxalite movement. Ashim immediately plunged into it.
Ask him why he plunged into the Naxalite movement and pat comes the reply, “Such were the times.”
Ask him why he did it and pat comes the reply, “Such were the times.” “When India gained independence from the British in 1947, there was an explosion of expectations,” he says. “People dreamt of freedom, justice and equality. The 1950s were a time of patient waiting. Then came the crushing disappointment and the shattering of the dream. Everywhere there was injustice and exploitation. We were forced to look for alternatives. So the 1960s became the decade of protests. I was a product of this era of rebelliousness. I was going with the flow.”
From a lower middle class family in a village in Birbhum, Chatterjee excelled in studies and got admitted to Presidency College, one of Calcutta’s most prestigious educational institutions. If Presidency became the hub of student activism during the Naxal period, Chatterjee claims responsibility. “It was to a large part my doing,” he says. “I introduced political activism to Presidency students, who were inexorably attracted towards the Naxal movement. Earlier, it was an institution of the obedient, the passive. Even Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s open challenge to his professor could not change the ‘well-behaved’ ambience of the respectable academic institution. But I led fellow students to question everything.”
Chatterjee recalls how he and his fellow students were getting radicalised. “We had a hostel superintendent, Haraprasad Mitra, whom we abhorred as he refused to listen to our grievances,” he says. “We were expected to suffer silently. His rule prevailed. But his manner was very gentle and, if he didn’t like a particular student, he would politely inform him that he had made other arrangements for him. For INStance, he told me that he had got me transferred to the hostel of another college. At that time, there was a rule that if you were thrown out of the hostel, you would be expelled from the college itself. We had initiated a group to counter him, which was called the Hidden Hindu Hostel Movement. We successfully managed to have him removed as superintendent. However, because of this record, when I sought re-entry to the college for my post-graduation, I was told that I was barred from applying due to my ‘bad conduct’.”
Chatterjee devoted himself fully to the Naxalbari revolt. Before setting out for work in the villages, he met Charu Majumdar for the first time during the leader’s visit to Calcutta in 1968. What intrigued Chatterjee as a young student were the differences of opinion within the inner circle of Naxalbari ideologues, including founders Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal. “In 1973, a year after Majumdar’s death, Sanyal, who was then still in prison, wrote the ‘Torai Report’ (‘Report from the Terai Region’),” says Chatterjee. In the report, Sanyal made the astounding claim that Majumdar had proposed a model different from the one that came to be known as the ‘Naxalbari’ rebellion. Majumdar, Sanyal claims, conducted an experimental revolt by leading poor farmers in a nearby location called Joter Haat, where the goal of the uprising was described as “annihilation of the class enemy for the sake of gradual seizure of power”. But as the peasants rejected it as too vague a dream, Majumdar went along with the suggestions of Sanyal and other comrades that the end result of class enemy annihilation would be to snatch everything from them—their arms and ammunition, money, farming tools, seeds and paddy, not to mention land and life. As Sanyal made this claim only after Majumdar’s death, his views earned much criticism and little attention.
The re-emergence of Naxalism in West Midnapore—the Lalgarh movement, led by Chhatradhar Mahato of the People’s Committee Against People’s Atrocities, who was later arrested, and Koteshwar Rao or Kishenji of the CPI (Maoist), who was later killed by government forces—is said to have followed the Joter Haat model more closely, where land struggles are not primary. Chatterjee has distanced himself from the Lalgarh movement. “These are armed struggles without responsibility,” he says. “And because they claim to be ‘socialist’ in outlook, but practise terrorism on the ground, I call them ‘social terrorism’.”
Drawing a line between Naxalism of his times and Maoism of today, he says, “Earlier, the rebels used traditional weapons such as bow and arrows, but now they depend on modern arms. And today the jungle routes and hideouts feature more as the terrain, while earlier it was agricultural land.” While not rejecting the politics of violent protest and saying, “Rebellion itself is relevant and justified”, he quit the CPI-ML and formed his own political party, the Communist Revolutionary League of India, in 1984. He contested elections in 2006, during the Singur agitation, and in 2011 he supported the Trinamool Congress in forming the government.
As he reminisces about the rebellion 50 years ago and the role he played in ensuring that it left an indelible mark on the history and politics of the land, Chatterjee passionately quotes from an Marxist-Leninist scholar’s article: “Nothing remained the same in society after the Naxal movement.”
As he waves goodbye, there is a distinct sense that it is actually a ‘laal salaam’.