In the winter of 1967, the year the small area of Naxalbari in northern West Bengal erupted in the flames of a violent peasant uprising, a group of rebels fled India to escape arrest. Among them was a farmer named Khudan Mullick. Fifty years later, it emerges that while on the run his comrades and he had had a secret meeting with none other than their hero, China’s Mao Zedong. The only one alive from that group, Mullick recounts the meeting in an interview with Dola Mitra.
So you met China’s Mao Zedong. Who all were there?
(Smiles broadly) Yes, I and my comrades. There were four of us. Kanu Sanyal, Khokon Majumdar, Dipak Biswas and I.
Out of all of the Naxal rebels, why were only four of you chosen?
Actually, we were on the run. We were fleeing arrest. We crossed over to Nepal through the Bihar border. An arduous journey...we had to walk without food or water for miles. Eventually, we reached Kathmandu. There we sought help from the Chinese embassy. We informed them about our struggle. They asked us to wait for a few days. We were put up in a hotel which at that time cost Rs 50 per night. Then the good news arrived. Chairman Mao would meet us.
How did you reach China?
We were put into a vehicle. The route was partially covered in dense jungles, we had to cover miles on foot, crossing rivers and valleys. I remember crossing Tibet. It was all shrouded in a lot of secrecy. When we reached a particular spot, a car was waiting for us again.
What was your first impression of Mao Zedong?
I couldn’t believe my eyes when it finally happened. We were ushered into a large hall with a long table and several chairs. The Chinese prime minister and Kang Sheng (intelligence advisor) were already waiting. After a brief pause, he walked in. He was tall and large and had an imposing presence. I was thinking, “So this is him...this is him”! He was our icon, the internationally acclaimed leader of the peasants. He looked at me and asked jokingly if I was sure I was Indian. I have Mongoloid features. He said he was sure I was Chinese. I was 24 years old at that time.
What language were you communicating in?
We were speaking in Bengali. They had arranged for an interpreter.
Please tell us what you discussed.
He told us that China fully supported our movement. He said peasant uprisings would be the only political reality the world over in the not-so-distant future. He also offered to help us in every possible way, whether financially or with training.
He told you that if your party were to eventually gain power in India, China would give up claims to disputed border territories?
He actually said much more than that. He told us categorically that in the scenario that we form the government in India, there would be no borders between India and China.
You mean, he was proposing that China and India would merge as nations if your movement became so successful as to gain power?
That was not specified. But what we understood was that there would be free movement between the two nations. Internationally, we would speak with the same voice. We would be on the same side on issues.
We hear that Mao looked directly at you and said the movement would succeed because of people like you—not literate but ‘sons of the soil’. He named two larger-than-life Communist leaders and said they would be able to achieve nothing in spite of their education. Who were they?
Jyoti Basu and (EMS) Namboodiripad.
You received arms training on Mao’s instructions, didn’t you?
Yes, he told us that he was making arrangements for us to be fully equipped, so that when we returned, we could take our armed struggle forward. He instructed officials to impart training to us. This lasted for an entire month. We received training in the use of rifles, pistols and were taught other tactics of warfare. Mao Zedong was very keen that our peasant uprising spread to the rest of India.
What happened on your return to India?
We were arrested within a week of our return. It was December 1967. The police had been looking for us throughout the time that we were in China. Yet, they had not got even a drift of it. We realised that when they asked us nothing about the China trip when we were arrested. During interrogation we were looking at each other. But not a single question pertained to China or Chairman Mao.
Why didn’t Charu Majumdar, who is credited with being one of the main leaders of the Naxal movement, not travel with you when you fled? Was the meeting with Mao an afterthought while on the run?
No, it was discussed even before we left. But there were no certainties. Charu Majumdar had to be in Naxalbari. He was needed here. The protest had reached the urban areas and he was providing leadership. Kanu Sanyal was providing the rural leadership, he was more hands-on with the peasants and farmers.
It is said that Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal had major differences on the way the movement would pan out. Please explain.
Yes, they had differences. Charu Majumdar advocated the annihilation of the class enemy by killing off landlords, with the chief aim of gaining control and power. Kanu Sanyal disagreed, he wanted to focus on snatching properties, documents and other tools of power from the landed and distribute these amongst peasants. It was then decided that each will be tried out. Majumdar’s model was tested at a location called Chhoter Haat, not far from Naxalbari. It’s mostly this module that spread to urban areas, including Calcutta, where police officials and other symbols of the ‘class enemy’ were annihilated. Actually, in Naxalbari itself and the surrounding villages, it was Kanu Sanyal’s model that was experimented with, and this is what became successful.
What is the model that Mao advocated?
He told us, we have to understand that India and China have two different realities. India functions as a parliamentary democracy and he said we need to use the system in order to subvert it. We couldn’t take on the might of the state without adequate preparation, he warned us. Training in arms struggle was important, but he said we had to move slowly, steadily, without haste. Our goal should be to achieve complete central power. The Charu Majumdar line. But the approach he advocated was more of the Kanu Sanyal line. We were to confiscate land and property, distribute it amongst peasants, gradually acquire power.