Friday, Jun 09, 2023

Remember Your Humanity, Rebel

Remember Your Humanity, Rebel

A teenager’s journey from Delhi’s St Stephen’s to the starving hamlets of Bihar and the killing fields of militias is a personal history of the Naxal upsurge

Remember Your Humanity, Rebel Photograph by Getty Images

Speaking for myself—and this could be true for many others—I joined the Naxalite movement out of an inflamed sense of deep injustice prevalent in India and the world over. And I left it for the same reason. Between these two markers lies a story which, when recalled by those whom it touched, would unfold like Homeric legend or the Maha­bharata of Vyasa. When I think about it, I can understand why epics grow with time.

This May marks the 50th anniversary of Naxalbari. And, 2018 will mark that of 1968. There were four moments of radical utopia in the 20th century that gripped the hearts of millions. The first coincided with the end of First World War and the Bolshevik revolution; the second was the German delusion of 1933 that became history’s black hole; the third was a dream of universal peace which accompanied the birth of the United Nations. The fourth is known by the iconic number: 1968, the year of the Prague Spring, the Tet offensive by the National Liberation Front in Vietnam; the May uprising in France, the Cultural Revolution in China and the Black Power salute by US athletes at the Mexico Olympics. Well, that was just the tip of it. Students the world over were affected by a radicalism that came from struggles in Latin America, Vietnam, South Africa and Palestine. This coincided with explosive discontent in India, where anti-Congress state governments were elected in 1967, and the country’s communism reverberated with demands for a more ‘revolutionary’ approach.

College Days

The impact these events had on us was emotional—I recall being deeply moved by Bertrand Russell’s book War Crimes in Vietnam. Emotions were central to the magnetism of Naxalism. My experience of college-sponsored social service in Palamau during the Bihar famine in February 1967 was a turning point. I was 17 years old, and among my teammates were my seniors Arvind Narayan Das and Vikram Chandra, both deceased. The district magistrate of Palamau, the late Kumar Suresh Singh, deputed us to report on relief operations. Arvind, Vikram and I went to a village named Narsinghpur Pathra, where we stayed at the village dispensary.

I had passed senior school at the Sainik School Kunjpura in the Haryana countryside; but this was my first glimpse of village life in Bihar (Palamau is part of Jharkhand now). Drought, scorching heat and scarcity had reduced the villagers to eating leaves and raw mango seeds; reliant on government support to avoid starvation. A food kitchen dispensed khichdi every morning to children, who would stand in line with little hands outstretched. Some peasants were trying to dig new wells to get at sub-soil water—but to no avail. The dispensary compounder was in no position to help people with ailments, when the medicine they most needed was food and water.

The sight of my fellow Indians in the midst of a famine was heart-rending. It also shook my faith in God. I remember arguing with some well-meaning Catholic nuns near Daltonganj; asking them how the Almighty could permit little children to starve, when they had done no wrong. It was not enough to be told that the ways of God were inscrutable. It took some years for me to learn that God did not hold a monopoly on inscrutability.

I acquired life-long friends during our sojourn. Arvind was a Marxist, and over days and nights explained to me why poverty was a function of class society, why no change of government would end exploitation; and why a total overthrow of class power was needed. It took little time for me to channel my sense of shock into a belief in a revolutionary ideology.

Soon after our return from Palamau the Naxalbari incident took place. Later in the year newspapers, especially, The Statesman, began reporting intense debates within the communist movement about the need for a new path. The ultra-Left were still members of the CPI(M), which was part of West Bengal’s United Front government. The party had been formed in 1964, in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. In 1967, there was an upsurge of working-class militancy in industrial plants. After Naxalbari, many communist mass organisations were affected by the Maoist line. In July 1967, the Chinese Communist Party’s central organ, People’s Daily, hailed the establishment of a “red area of rural revolutionary armed struggle” in India. This was the period of the domination of Mao’s ultra-left faction over Chinese politics. The Naxalites received crucial impetus from this international endorsement. The rift within communism was complete. It was to have fateful consequences.

In August 1968, Arvind became the first (and last) Naxalite president of St Stephen’s College students union. Intense debates took place within and outside that Delhi college, on the university campus. I edited a cyclostyled journal named Enquirer, full of revolutionary rhetoric, some of which led to police inquiries. We wrote hyperbolic slogans on the walls of the university supporting Vietnam, Palestine, the IRA, Chairman Mao and the Indian revolution. We interacted with communist workers in old Delhi—one of my close comrades in the underground was a worker in the Birla Cotton Mills, whose ramshackle home in a working-class bustee was used as a shelter for Charu Majumdar on a rare trip to north India in the winter of 1971.

In 1970, our group, including comrades from Hindu College, Miranda House and Jubilee Hall, staged a hilarious political lampoon called India ’69, ridiculing the entire political spectrum. It was a big hit. A Special Branch policeman asked me for the author’s name—and refused to believe that we had authored it collectively. The economist Joan Robinson visited the Delhi School of Economics after a trip to China and wore a Mao cap as she spoke about the Cultural Revolution. I learned more about it from her book on the subject, published in a Penguin paperback. Penguin published many left-radical titles those days, including by Marx, Sartre, Fanon and Regis Debray. Needless to say, the Communist Manifesto was available for a few annas in People’s Publishing House in Connaught Place. Chinese literature also flowed in from Calcutta, including texts by Mao and the little Red Book.


Charu Majumdar’s group announced the formation of the CPI(ML) in April 1969. Violent actions against landlords—some extremely brutal—began to take place in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. There were also disruptive ‘actions’ in schools and colleges. Statues and portraits of personages such as Rammohun Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Tagore and Gandhi were vandalised. The walls came alive with revolutionary slogans and stencilled images of Chairman Mao. The term ‘class enemy’ expanded to refer to anyone deemed to be inimical to the revolut­ion; hence could include suspected informers, police officials and political critics. The VC of Jadavpur University was murdered in December 1970.

This period marked the apogee of Charu’s authority within the movement. In May 1970, my friends Arvind and Rabindra went underground. I followed them in October. The reasons why some of us bec­ame active revolutionaries are complex. Suffice it to say that we experienced a powerful moral imperative, something like a rediscovery of the freedom movement. Of course, it was hard to cause our families so much pain and anxiety. My father, a ret­ired Army officer and a prominent educationist, faced criticism for his failure to ‘control’ his own son. It is easy to denounce Naxalites as ‘anti-nati­onal’ and ‘Chinese-funded’. But Naxalites saw themselves as freedom fighters, flag-bearers of Bhagat Singh’s brand of militant nationalism. Undoubtedly, the Chinese CP was already using Indian Maoism for its geo-political objectives—it was not similarly enthusiastic for revolution in Pakistan or Sri Lanka. But it could do so because of the powerful attraction Naxalism held for sections of the working population and students.

1971: The Global Crisis

The period that we were ‘underground’ saw momentous happenings in the sub-continent. The clash with moderate communists became vicious. CPI(M) and CPI(ML) cadre engaged in murderous actions against one another. Naxalites began to threaten poll processes with violence. In 1971, the pathways of global politics became hard to explain, and too much to bear. The revered Chairman Mao shook hands with America’s Henry Kissinger, as Vietnam continued to be bombed. An insurrection in Sri Lanka was smashed by the Bandaranaike regime with the support of India, Pakistan, the US, China and the USSR. Pakistan refused to honour the results of its general election and in March 1971 launched a military crackdown in East Pakistan, with the backing of the Chinese government. In the following months, up to ten million refugees fled to West Bengal—at one point a lakh people were crossing the border daily.

As a cadre on the move, I saw these poor people, bereft of hope, driven from their homes, camping in the streets of Calcutta or on the highways. Isolated (most of the time) from my comrades, I struggled to make sense of what was happening to the grand design of Indian revolution. China blamed India and the USSR for the crisis in Pakistan; and initially I persisted in my loyalty to the Chinese version. But I was soon overwhelmed by the cynicism of the Chinese Communist Party. I was especially angry that the Chinese media had not informed its public or their global followers about the ongoing genocide in East Pakistan. Zhou En Lai’s letter to Yahya Khan in April 1971, after he had begun the slaughter of innocents, was an eye-opener. Those who imagine that the degeneration of Chinese communism happened only after the death of Chairman Mao should read this deceitful document. The People’s Republic of China had revealed itself as a dictatorship, but certainly not a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Unable to cope with events, the CPI(ML) was thrown into ideological disarray. In December 1971, I was in Calcutta, the epicentre of a global military confrontation. India, the USSR and Bangladeshi fighters were ranged against Pakistan, China and the USA. Before and during the war, the police conducted anti-Naxal combing operations. Naxalites were kni­fing traffic cops in the streets, plain-clothes ‘police guerilla squads’ were entering homes to shoot suspects. Professional musclemen in the bustees were employed by both sides, and there were massacres of Naxal cadre such as the one in Baranagar in August 1971. The spiral of death had assumed a life of its own.


Those two years for me were like a truth-shower, an introduction to the lives of India’s labouring people. There was little contact with my friends, for we were far apart in our chosen areas of work. Nor was revolution much in evidence—whatever the rhetoric, most of India was untouched by Naxalite politics. I worked in fields, factories and transport vehicles, slept on railway platforms and streets, lived in slums and villages, made friends with the most unl­ikely persons. On one occasion, I escaped the clutches of the Punjab police; on another I rece­ived lathi blows on my shins from two Delhi constables who thought I looked suspicious (I did). It was like swimming in an ocean of uncertainty; kept afloat by friendship and the love of my comrades, but most of all, by faith in the inevitable victory of world revolution.

In December 1971, as a tidal wave of war, arrests, torture and mass migration rolled over the subcontinent, the self-generative character of violence and the deceitful nature of ideological speech dawned on me. Ideology became the methodology for the destr­uction of conscience. Our ‘party line’ was redu­ced to sophistry and irrelevance amidst the suffering of Bengal’s millions and the manipulations of the great powers. If Naxalism has survived for decades, it should serve to remind the Indian establishment—across the political spectrum—that the humiliation experienced by marginalised people can and will destabilise the system for an indefinite period. Violence is engendered by injustice, not poverty. It would benefit all if our justice system were perceived as fair by the poorest in the land. Let our journalists, writers, judges and officials use their consciences and think about the rioting, lynching and communal propaganda rife these days—are our rulers in any position to preach respect for law to Naxalites? Why should one kind of lawlessness enjoy impunity and another be deemed anti-national? Will those who bombed the Samjhauta Express in 2007 ever be punished? Does the RSS respect the law? Or does it want to overturn the Constitution by subterfuge?

Since 1789, revolution has been the central fixation of politics, inspiring dread in some quarters and heady anticipation in others. But ideological thinking destroys individuality—it matters little which camp you belong to. The mobilisation of private armies and vigilante groups, so common in our subcontinent, requires a systematic departure from thought to obedience, from speech to sloganeering, from mindfulness of ends to mindless hatred and violence. If the attainment of a just society is so dependent upon the transformation of commitment into bestiality, radicals of all varieties will succeed only in becoming mirror images of their chosen enemies. It all comes round in the end. ‘Revolution’ means the completion of a circle.

One of the favourite slogans of the ’68 generation was borrowed from Paris: ‘Remember your humanity and rebel!’ It cuts both ways.

(The writer is a labour historian who participated in the first phase of the Naxalite movement.)